Space school gives science early lift-off

10th September 2010 at 01:00
Nasa-backed project for P6 pupils helps fuel interest during critical dearth in key subjects

"The contemplation of celestial things will make a man both speak and think more sublimely and magnificently when he descends to human affairs."

As Cicero observed in 30BC, outer space has few equals as a catalyst for learning. The same rationale is behind a programme aimed at boosting the popularity of science from an early age.

Tayside Space School, an initiative for P6 pupils from Dundee and Perth and Kinross, strives to build on children's innate fascination with science before it is dimmed by poor teaching and the disruptive transition to secondary school.

"A lot of primary teachers have difficulty delivering really exciting science," says John Scott, depute headteacher at Rattray Primary, near Blairgowrie, and co-ordinator for the space school in Perth. His remark chimes with the recent Royal Society report that identified a dearth of science and maths specialists in UK primary schools and blamed it for the dwindling popularity of the subjects as pupils got older.

The space school, which has been running since 2007, has the benefit of Nasa expertise. Teaching materials were produced by Space Center Houston, and a group of local teachers visited Nasa in 2008 to learn about running space education projects. They met several astronauts, including John Young, who walked on the moon in 1972, and English-born Mike Foale, whose interest in space had been sparked as a boy by watching Doctor Who and 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Astronauts such as Alvin Drew, who will be on the penultimate space shuttle flight in November, and Bjarni Tryggvason have travelled in the opposite direction to work with the children, alongside Nasa space educators. Bringing the educators to Scotland has been a less expensive alternative to training Scottish teachers in Houston.

The programme takes place over four Saturdays, followed by a week of workshops early in the summer holidays, and is described by Mr Scott as a "Trojan horse" for science, covering topics as diverse as sustainability, photosynthesis, propulsion, DNA and fitness.

The most popular activity, he has found, is when the children are asked to make space suits and show them off to their peers in a mock press conference.

John Palfreyman head of contemporary sciences at Abertay University, which plays a central role in the programme with Perth College and the two local authorities, has been taken aback by the creative responses. In particular, one girl this year walked into the auditorium with not just a space suit, but silver-foil boxes around her feet - to combat weightlessness.

The children, who do not pay to take part, have also designed vehicles capable of pulling rocks around on a mission to Mars, and explored the Red Planet's geology by mapping the "lava flow" of miniature volcanoes they made, using bicarbonate of soda.

But sometimes the simplest of experiments are the most memorable. Nasa educators, such as Patricia Moore and Jack Moore, had pupils "in the palm of their hands", Mr Scott recalls, when they showed the difficulty of working in space by getting pupils to stare upwards for a long time, turn round a few times, then try to walk and stay balanced.

Feedback has been very positive. One mother told how her daughter had been "ransacking" the house for odds and ends that might come in useful.

The parent of another girl drew a direct line between Space School and the expression of a new sentiment at the dinner table: "Oh good, I've got science tomorrow at school."

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