One giant leap for...;Space links
It's a long way from the Welsh valleys to ground control at Houston, Texas - but that hasn't stopped one school from pushing the'final frontier'. Martin Whittaker reports
They think big at Stanwell Comprehensive. Very big. When the school decided to mark the recent opening of a new pound;15 million building, the result was truly out of this world. The ceremony was performed by a Russian cosmonaut aboard the space station Mir via a live video link-up.
Impressive, but nothing unusual at an ambitious Welsh school which has entered the space age thanks to two spectacularly successful former pupils who have developed long-lasting links with Nasa, America's National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
No visitor to Stanwell could miss the fact that this is a school with an eye on the stars. In pride of place is a striking stained-glass window showing a detailed view of the moon and all its phases. Corridors are lined with student work that offers fascinating links with space, the stars and the solar system.
In biology classes you'll find pupils experimenting with self-sustaining environments influenced by Nasa's work on biospheres. In information technology, they're creating database packages on the planets. And in English, they're star-gazing for inspiration in creative writing.
This infectious space fever is informed not by dull, worthy texts and pictures but by first-hand observation. Every summer the school selects two lower-sixth students to join pupils from all over the world on a three-week study course at the Johnson Space Centre in Houston, Texas. Deputy head Chris Barber enthuses: "This has enabled youngsters throughout the school to come into direct contact with the world's biggest scientific and technological programme."
Each year's Houston hopefuls have to submit an essay on space exploration. A shortlist is then drawn up and youngsters interviewed. Of the ten selected since the scheme began five years ago, six have won places at Oxford or Cambridge.
The most recent Stanwell astronauts were Richard Palmer and Laura Shorney, now both 18 and studying for A-levels. Both have been offered places at Oxford, Richard in history and politics and Laura in English.
During their three weeks, they had breakfast every morning with astronauts, did a simulated space shuttle landing, sat in on mission control during astronaut training and flew a mock space mission.
"We had to fly it just like you would if you were on mission control and on a space ship," says Laura. "The scientific side was amazing. We had scientists talking to us about what they're trying to do with Mars."
Back at Stanwell, the whole school is feeling the effects. Year 10 biology pupils are involved in the Biosphere Project, experimenting with artificial environments by trying combinations of plants and animals in large glass containers. The idea is modelled on Nasa's own experiments to develop self-sustaining spacecraft environments for long voyages. Biology teacher Ian Spilsbury says: "The next stage is to start automatic monitoring of life and oxygen levels. Hopefully we're going to download the information on the Internet so it can be accessed by other schools."
English teacher Fiona Woolley asked Year 7 and 8 groups to write poems inspired by Stanwell's Nasa links. "They all came up with these wonderful ideas. We gave them free rein and they were thrilled to bits."
In the school's IT rooms Year 10s are using data gleaned from Nasa's website to put together databases for younger students and other schools which will become resource packages on the planets of our solar system. Before the Nasa link-up, says IT teacher Graham Lewis, pupils would have learned about databases by collecting names and addresses of friends. "Now they're actually using real working data. And there's masses of it available."
Stanwell is helping develop a virtual International Space School - a website which will act as an exchange centre, linking a global network of schools and allowing easy access to the mass of Internet information on space. The ultimate aim is to see experiments designed by British children being carried out on the International Space Station currently being built in a collaboration between 16 nations.
As they say at Stanwell, watch this space...