Rocket science

6th January 2006 at 00:00
A bright idea could win pupils a fortnight with astronauts in Florida, reports Maggie Lee.

How do you ignite a passion for science and demonstrate how important it is to a lucrative and interesting career? "By offering students the best school prize in the world - a two week trip to Nasa's space centres in Houston and Florida to work with astronauts and rocket scientists," says Chris Barber, director of the International Space School Education Trust (ISSET).

Edge into Space is a competition organised by ISSET with support from the education foundation EDGE. The competition's launch last year was timely, as it coincided with a survey from the University of Birmingham which revealed that one in every 10 state schools no longer offered A-level physics.

"We know from our experience of running student and teacher programmes at space centres how inspirational these visits can be and how effectively they promote the benefits of learning maths, science and engineering," says Chris.

But just how does learning about human exploration in space connect with other career opportunities that require a scientific or engineering education? American astronaut Scott Kelly, who visited the UK to support the competition, explains: "So much of our modern way of life depends on technology that was originally developed for the space programme. By asking kids to come up with something that can improve life in space or something that can improve life on Earth, we're getting them to directly apply scientific and mathematical thinking to problem-solving. And to do this in a highly creative and enterprising way, encouraging them to work with experts along the way."

A scientific education was to provide Commander Kelly with the passport to his career. Kelly, who will lead space flight STS-118, an assembly mission scheduled to launch in March, originally trained as a military test pilot.

"My brother and I were the first in our family to graduate from college.

Today I tell kids that it's important to do well at school and take pride in whatever you're doing, because you never know what opportunities will be there in the future. There are all kinds of great things you can do in your life, not only associated with the space programme; but preparation is key to be able to do them."

According to Chris: "Part of the problem lies in making interesting technological careers visible. Whilst many people realise that Hollywood is a $12-billion-a-year industry, they don't always realise that the hardware side of the satellite industry alone generates $140 billion each year."

Kelly agrees: "We have learnt so much from space that helps us to protect our planet and the environment and advance in medicine, creating new and exciting careers along the way. Ultimately space exploration is like life; you don't always know what you're going to find, unless you have the courage to go looking for it."

lEntry is open to people aged 13 to 17 who live in England and who can assemble a team. Teams are invited either to develop ideas that could improve life in space or develop ideas which originate in space that could be used to improve life on Earth. Closing date is March 3.

Shortlisted winners will face a "Dragon's Den" finale in April judged by a panel of astronauts and science personalities. The winners will enjoy two weeks in America in July at the Nasa space centres where they will meet astronauts and work with scientists.

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