Not so out of this world

9th February 2007 at 00:00
A new space school for primary pupils in Dundee links innovative projects to the real world

The large Victorian telescope on the top floor of Mills Observatory is pointing skyward; 26 children are clustered around it as astronomer Bill Samson introduces them to the infinite world of outer space.

They are learning about planets, satellites and orbits. Dr Samson tells them of early astronomers - the German Johannes Kepler in particular, as well as Galileo, Copernicus and Pythagoras - who made their observations by eye and mathematics alone, before telescopes were invented.

Two P6 children from 23 primary schools in Dundee are attending the newly launched Discovery STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) space school. Run by the University of Abertay Dundee, with backing from Dundee City Council's education department, it is being held one Saturday a month for six months, culminating in a summer school run by NASA astronauts.

Kepler calculated three laws of planetary motion. Today, Dr Samson is focusing on the third, which is still used by scientists to plan space travel.

The other 20 children are being taken round the Discovery Point Antarctic Museum and Captain Scott's famous polar exploration ship, "RRS Discovery", learning about the history of exploration. The name "Discovery" is the link between Dundee and NASA. After lunch, they will swap.

The idea is to interest primary pupils in science. Professors, doctors and other scientists from Abertay have developed the programme and will focus on a different topic each month. February's space school, held in Abertay, will look at various areas of science, March will focus on computing and engineering, April will explore health, in May, the cadets will investigate recycling and self-sustaining systems and in June, they will be involved in project planning.

Four astronauts, a scientist and an engineer from the Johnson Space Center in Houston, Texas, will fly out to give the space cadets a week-long summer school starting on July 2, at the end of which will be a graduation ceremony.

"We want to link science to the real world," says John Palfreyman, the deputy principal of Abertay and head of the School of Contemporary Sciences.

While the number of science students has picked up over the last few years, Professor Palfreyman is concerned at the dwindling numbers taking science subjects at Higher level. Primary school, he says, is the time to plant the science seed in their imaginations. "There is a space school in Scotland for secondary, so we thought we'd create one for primary," he says.

"This is science city. There are a huge number of jobs in science and technology. A science education teaches you to think logically and research methodically."

The project is the idea of businessman and Abertay honorary fellow John Beaton, and George Abbey, former director of NASA, with local input and support from John Smith, an ex-NASA consultant and a Dundonian. "This country has been renowned internationally for centuries as the producer of inventors, scientists, engineers," says Mr Beaton. "As the worldwide needs for these skills are greater than ever, it is important that we encourage more of our young fertile minds towards STEM."

The theme of innovation will run through each topic, encouraging pupils to develop their own inventiveness to solve problems and meet challenges.

Ultimately, its organisers hope to encourage pupils to consider STEM subjects as a future career.

"This is a first in Scotland," says Lina Waghorn, head of primary education at Dundee City Council. "Fewer and fewer pupils are choosing science to study, so we're introducing them to lots of topics, connecting the curriculum to real life. We picked children who showed an interest in science."

Simone Bair-stow, an Ancrum pupil, says she has enjoyed doing scientific experiments. "We were doing electricity and you had to get the lightbulb to light," she says. "I want to see how space works - how it all happens in the sky and how it came about."

Martin McNab, a pupil at Blackness Primary, is mesmerised. "I'd be interested to know more about life forms in outer space; it's possible there could be things living on other planets and in other solar systems. I believe in the existence of UFOs but not all the fantasy stuff like green men. You get lots of UFO sightings in Area 51 in America, but that could be a hoax."

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