Mars attacks!

1st December 2006 at 00:00
Nick Hilborne reports on how a space invasion has obliterated science-weariness at a Birmingham comprehensive

Science is boring, travel is interesting. Well, that's what I've always thought. Travel to the moon, travel to Mars - interesting as long as it doesn't get too scientific. And it doesn't, when you speak to someone who knows what they're talking about. Anu Ojha, an advanced skills science teacher and self-confessed space obsessive (right), describes the red planet so vividly you might think he had been there.

In a way he has. After university, he spent two years in the foothills of the Himalayas in India, working as a guide in the highest ranges, including those forming part of the Tibetan plateau. If there is any landscape on earth that resembles Mars, Anu says this is it.

"The surface of Mars is very cold, and very dry. The air is very thin. If you could freeze-dry the Tibetan plateau, and remove most of the atmosphere, you might end up with something like Mars."

Meanwhile, in a remote valley in Nepal, a fellow climber listened to him talking about the planets and suggested he become a teacher.

Today, Anu is director of science and maths at Britain's biggest comprehensive - Great Barr School in Birmingham, with more than 2,400 children.

Mars was particularly useful to him recently, when he was trying to turn round a disaffected Year 11 science class. Two years work had to be covered in one if they were to leave school with reasonable grades. His immediate challenge was to get them interested and he used a video showing the launch of the American Mars exploration rovers Spirit and Opportunity.

"Even the most disruptive kids were gripped. By the end of three lessons some of them were understanding stuff up to B grade level at GCSE, when their predicted grades were D or E."

Further down the school, at Year 7, Anu shows a video of the American Mars exploration rovers hurtling through the Martian atmosphere. "Each bounced for half a mile before they landed," he says. "They were cushioned by being contained within air bags, balloons which deflated when they emerged."

The pupils have 20 minutes to create a way of landing a spacecraft on Mars.

They are given string, straws, paper, and sheets of plastic. Eggs represent the spacecrafts. "The kids are ingenious," says Anu. "Some create designs based on parachutes. Some use balloons as air bags. When they've finished, I drop their work out of a third floor window."

A teaching assistant watches from the ground with the children. Most devices land safely and few eggs are smashed. However, any cracks in the eggs, which could be disastrous in a space rover, mean the mission has failed.

In February, Anu and Sandy Wilkinson, a fellow advanced skills teacher at Great Barr, will be explaining how Mars and the Martian environment can be used in schools at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas, at an annual space exploration educators' conference, hosted by Nasa.

At Nasa, they believe that one day the red planet could be transformed into a viable habitat for large numbers of humans. Well, can you think of a better way to escape our ridiculous house prices? Fasten your seat belts

FINAL FRONTIER

The National Space Centre in Leicester is to run a scheme to help schools use space exploration to motivate teenagers, and encourage them to take A-levels and vocational courses in science-related subjects.

The initiative, to be launched next year, is linked to the redevelopment of the centre's Space Now gallery.

Gareth James, the centre's education manager, says: "We're not interested in fancy ideas to foist on teachers. We want to produce practical materials they can use."

As well as teacher training days and after-school sessions, activities will be developed relevant to exam courses, using the facilities at the space centre.

Universities and employers will also be invited to make contact with potential recruits at careers fairs and other events.

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