14th October 2005 at 01:00
Children in a Wiltshire primary are donning spacesuits and bringing science and technology down to earth. John Kelleher reports

The scene in ground control was somewhat chaotic as the team engaged in a lively debate. Which of the people on the Moonbase should venture out on an important mission? Eventually, the chosen candidate was briefed over a radio link. A hush fell as she donned a helmet and silver suit and cautiously ventured outside for a zero-gravity stroll. Her task was to collect some important objects from a nearby outbuilding.

Ground control directed it all via a radio link and observed progress on the large screen displaying a live relay of crystal-sharp images from the "Moonbase". But any eyes that strayed from the vivid events on the screen could enjoy another perspective. From the windows of the hall at Neston School in Wiltshire they could see their classmate Antonia, dressed in a silver-foil "spacesuit", navigating her way across the playground from the Moonbase - a glittering geodesic dome - to a nearby terrarium. She was one of six children being "Nestonauts" for the afternoon, carrying out a series of experiments in and around the Moonbase. The dome was built last year with pound;35,000 funding from Nesta, the National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts. It is one of only three such projects at schools across the UK, all providing a novel way of studying science, technology and a range of other subjects.

Neston's interest in extraterrestrial matters was brought into focus in the summer of 2003 when it became the first UK primary school to talk live to an astronaut aboard the International Space Station. For 20 minutes, a group of pupils quizzed astronaut Ed Lu via the NASA-funded Amateur Radio in Space programme as the station, 321 kilometres out in space, passed over the west of England.

Pupils, teachers and parents interrupted summer holidays and joined villagers in the packed school hall to hear the children quiz the astronaut about life in space, his feelings, what he could see and his plans once he returned to Earth. In the run-up to the event, the school had been studying space topics across the curriculum, but the link-up inspired greater interest and, soon afterwards, one parent, who had been a catalyst in the space chat, alerted them to the dome project.

They applied to Nesta for a grant to build the dome and buy the necessary electronic and computer equipment to get it up and running. The building, based on Buckminster Fuller's classic design, is big enough to house a whole class for lessons on science, technology, and even art, and is used regularly by the school's 150 pupils. Rachel Riley, chair of governors, says: "The aim of the project is to create a learning facility, to experiment, play and inspire."

Headteacher Linda Davies is welcoming visitors from other schools to see the dome in use. "Difficult concepts can be grasped easily if pupils can see and interact with complex objects. They are literally brought to life,"

she says. "Schools face difficulties in bringing science and engineering into the classroom. Through Nestonauts we have found new and innovative ways of engaging pupils in 21st-century technology.

"Rather than being confined to the classroom, and being told what might happen, we wanted pupils to have the chance to find out for themselves.

Most people find it easier to learn when they have had the opportunity to be hands-on, and certainly, they are more likely to remember it if they have done it for themselves."

The pupils' zest for the afternoon's adventures around the Moonbase was obvious. Everyone in the hall joined in. The theme was teamwork and, by means of the webcam and radio link-up, the children in the hall guided and instructed their classmates in the dome through a range of tasks and experiments that required members of the small Moonbase team to use different skills. Senior classroom teacher Stephen Heal borrowed reality TV techniques, getting the children to vote on who should take part in various exercises, who should be rewarded for their efforts and who should get the lion's share of the chocolate buttons Antonia retrieved in her Moonwalk.

The dome is very much a project in progress. The webcam inside the dome now links directly to classrooms rather than the school hall. It means that children can use control technology to determine what happens inside the dome, says Stephen Heal. "The next stage will be developing the technology so that we can control it by the internet from anywhere in the world."

And the children are involved in building and developing some of the elements. Pupils have constructed willow tunnel walkways, such as those linking the dome to the terrarium and to a pond nearby. A bird-watching hide with a camera has also been created.

A five-pointed sensory star garden features plants illustrating the five senses and will include raised features so that pupils with special needs can also enjoy it.

The project has brought scientific experimentation to the heart of the curriculum, with children "trying to model what it would be like be on the Moon if mankind were there," says Stephen Heal.

Neston's interest in space is not confined to Moon-walking. They became the first school in Britain to establish links to the new Geosat weather satellite. Every 15 minutes it transmits real-time images of Earth and the school can download these, free of charge, to investigate weather patterns, land masses and a host of other data. They have already studied the terrain in Kenya, where they're linked to a school near Lake Victoria. The image resolution from the satellite is so powerful they can see buildings and large crowds of people on the ground.

l The Solardome Industries site provides full details of special educational pricing and possible sources of funding. Prices start at pound;4,590 (inc VAT). Delivery costs up to pound;300 and installation starts at pound;880. A range of extras and other variable is available.

Tel: 0845 450 2155

* Nesta supports creative learning projects.

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