One small step for vocational education ..

21st December 2012 at 00:00
... but engineering course is a giant leap for space industry

We may not be about to put a man or woman on the moon, but a shortage of engineers for Britain's booming space industry has prompted the creation of the first vocational course in space engineering.

Taught by Loughborough College with the National Space Academy, the space engineering course combines maths and physics A levels with a BTEC in engineering, all of which use examples from space to illustrate underlying concepts or to support project work.

The first 11 students started in September, and the National Space Academy - a joint venture between the UK and European space agencies, as well as industry backers - hopes to expand to other colleges and schools. It is also creating higher apprenticeships with Loughborough College, hoped to launch next year.

Loughborough has a key advantage in delivering the course: it is located near the space academy in Leicester. Students are taught maths and engineering at the college and travel to the academy, based at the National Space Centre, to learn physics surrounded by rockets, satellites, a replica space shuttle and a recreation of the surface of Mars. They also have the chance of work experience in the UK space industry and will work with established space scientists.

The government has announced an extra #163;300 million of investment in the UK Space Agency over the next five years, partly because it is one industry that has shown consistent growth of about 8 per cent each year. It employs 29,000 people and is worth more than #163;9.1 billion to the UK economy.

Britain leads the way in some parts of the space industry, such as the manufacture of satellites to observe the earth for the effects of global warming or for telecommunications, according to Anu Ohja, director of education and space communications at the National Space Academy.

Until now, the academy has focused on working with students in schools and colleges to engage them in science through their interest in space. This is the first time it has worked on developing a course to equip students for the space industry, although Mr Ohja acknowledges that they may end up in other science or engineering careers.

"We've never had a full-time cohort of students post-16 before," he said. "It was led by the demand from the UK space sector. The space workforce is ageing and we need new blood. Employers said that they needed academic skills and hands-on skills."

Reports by the Gatsby charitable foundation found that there was a shortage of skilled technicians in science sectors and that employers were rethinking graduate recruitment because they "lack the practical skills and experience, problem-solving skills and commercial understanding".

Projects in the BTEC course might include understanding how to power a life-support system for off-world living, or building a controllable robot, like a simple version of the Curiosity rover now exploring Mars. The extreme environments of space, where temperatures can shift 100 degsC from sunlight to shadow, make it ideal to illustrate scientific and engineering concepts.

"A Norwegian colleague always says, 'Space is the gateway drug for science'," said Mr Ohja. "So many practising scientists say it was the Apollo programme that inspired them. What we do at the academy is to try to increase the flow of people with science and technical qualifications, not just for the UK space industry but for UK science and engineering as a whole."

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