My Left-field Lesson - A line to outer space

6th December 2013 at 00:00
Twitter can connect students to extraordinary places and people

One late September evening, while I was on the internet catching up with the news, I came across an article about Adam Cudworth, a 19-year-old student who builds his own hot-air balloons and launches them into space. He had made the news because he had sent up a digital camera with his latest balloon and had taken some wonderful photographs of the curvature of the Earth.

I knew I had to get in touch with this young person. My class of nine- and 10-year-olds love space. I love space. And at that point we were studying space.

The most I was hoping for was for the children to write to Adam, for them to follow him on Twitter and for us to see his amazing photographs. All these we did, and he wrote a fantastic four-page letter back to the class.

I thought that would be the end of things but the project started to snowball. A few months later, we received an email from Adam inviting the class to send up an experiment with his next balloon. What an incredible, once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. The class didn't quite believe it when I told them their work would actually be going into space; I didn't quite believe it either.

The first job was to get the students to work in pairs to design an appropriate experiment. There were certain constraints, such as that it couldn't be flammable, dangerous or alive. After much debate, the children chose to send up a magnet to see if it had changed when it returned.

On the day of the balloon launch, I was away on a course, but back at school the students were able to download Adam's app and track the balloon. (I did the same on my phone.)

It was amazing to see our experiment float into the ether and I was blown away that night when Adam sent me some photographs of the balloon in situ: you could see the magnet from our classroom with the Earth in the background.

The children were really excited to see their magnet in space, so we tweeted about the experience. We were shocked at who replied. First was Tim Peake (@astro_timpeake), one of the UK's top astronauts, who got in touch to commend our photos. He added Luca Parmitano (@astro_luca) into his reply, another astronaut who was at that point living on the International Space Station.

Luca then tweeted the class to congratulate them on the experiment. The children went crazy with delight and I must confess that so did I. It was such a buzz to have made contact with someone living in space.

This led to us following Luca on Twitter and looking at his amazing videos and photos, which I strongly recommend. He then tweeted us about another astronaut who was living on the International Space Station, an American called Karen L Nyberg (@astroKarenN). My class loved watching videos of her washing her hair in zero gravity.

We had one more surprise after this: the European Space Agency (@esa) tweeted the class to tell them to keep dreaming up great science ideas. It was the icing on a rather large cake for the students, who had never been more inspired to learn and embrace science.

The whole project got me thinking about the power of using Twitter in primary schools. The potential for collaboration, working with others and reaching a global audience is astounding and a real motivator for the children.

And our experiment? I can report that the magnet returned to Earth still fully magnetic.

David May is a teacher at St Christopher's Catholic Primary School in Stockport, Cheshire, England

Top 10 Twitter-related resources

1. Thought feed

Use Twitter to help gauge students' understanding by getting them to fill in this template of a Twitter feed with their thoughts and questions on a class topic.


2. Pieces of Peaceful

Use Twitter as the basis for a character study of Tommo in the Michael Morpurgo novel Private Peaceful.


3. Brief assessment

Challenge students to respond to questions about their learning in only 140 characters. Students summarise their answer and write their "tweet" on the handout.


4. Mystery men

This Twitter profile template enables teachers to write tweets from the perspective of a person or character being studied. The students then try to work out who the mystery tweeter is.


5. #lessismore

Get students to review their learning in a condensed form using these Twitter templates; encourage them to think of creative hashtags, such as #economical, that summarise their knowledge.


6. Tweet your lesson

Transform your in-class questioning techniques with this Twitter-inspired idea. Identify key words using hashtags and direct questions at specific students, who can choose to reply or "tweet" a friend for help.


7. Twitter policia

Put students' listening and reading skills to the test with this comprehension resource on how the police in Spain use Twitter.


8. Fan base

Check understanding of larger numbers in this maths activity based on Twitter followers. Students list the numbers of fans of a variety of figures from Lady Gaga (pictured, right) to Adele.


9. Viral load

Contextualise a lesson on disease with this activity focusing on crisis management of an avian flu epidemic. Students react to tweets from the public as they try to minimise the spread of the virus.


10. Fame game

Students put themselves in the shoes of famous people from Einstein to Anne Frank and imagine what they would tweet. This thinking skills activity could be used with your tutor group or as a starter.



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