Space: the science frontier

22nd September 2000 at 01:00
In 2001, a space odyssey will begin at the National Space Centre in Leicester. Here science lessons will be cunningly disguised by exciting role play. Phil Revell boards a virtual mission to Mars for a preview flight.

Michael Moon is concentrating furiously. He is navigating a transport ship coming in to land on Mars. On his viewfinder a desert landscape and mountains rush towards him as his craft drops down to the surface of the red planet. Some of the crew flinch as the ship swerves too close to a jagged ridge and then there is a round of applause as the craft touches down safely. Michael turns pink, he doesn't often get applause in Year 9 science lessons.

And a science lesson it is, at the Challenger Learning Centre in Leicester, where would-be space cadets can experience NASA-style shuttle missions at first hand.

Challenger Learning Centres aim to give children something of the excitement and adventure of a shuttle mission. Challenger was the shuttle which exploded on take-off in 1986 and the learning centres were set up by the families of crew members as a lasting memorial. The Leicester centre is the first outside the United States.

"It's just a cunningly disguised classroom," says education manager Paul Roche. Dr Roche is an astrophysicist and was an astronomer for 10 years at the University of Sussex. "The idea of the whole centre is that the kids are so immersed in the storyline and so involved in their roles that they don't actually realise that they are learning. It's a science by stealth approach."

The Year 9 pupils from New College in Leicester have been split into two groups. One lot is assigned to mission control and the other to the space station. Each pupil is then assigned to a team - medical, life support, isolation, remote, probe, navigation, communication and data - which have counterparts in both groups.

Michael and his Mars transport crewmates are in a room bristling with screens, workstations and equipment. There are robot arms, a room for satellite assembly, a handling tank with only gloved access and a bio-medical station. Over a public address system comes a series of instructions and reports from mission control, millions of miles away - or next door, depending on how deeply into the role-play you are.

Any NASA fan or film buff would recognise mission control with its master video screens, banks of computer workstations and rows of hard-working controllers. None of the New College group are chain-smoking or drinking coffee, but there is still an authentic atmosphere.

And so there ought to be, because the entire layout and role-playing sequences were planned and written by NASA itself.

"Wherever possible it simulates the NASA protocols," explains Dr Roche. "What the kids say, the way they do things, is the same that NASA would use at mission control in Houston. There's a medical officer, a navigation officer, a communications officer. We have a scripted story and they all have a role o play."

If a group is progressing through their tasks very well the flight directors, dressed in NASA overalls and including qualified teachers, can throw a spanner in the works. There are red lights on the ceiling and a siren which can signal an emergency. "There can be an oxygen leak, a radiation spillage or a solar flare," explains Dr Roche.

Similarly, groups can also be helped if they hit a problem but have not realised it. "The assistance comes through the computer system. We can send them e-mails. As far as they are concerned, all the messages are coming in anonymously."

In the American centres, when someone gets a job done, or pulls off a difficult task, they inevitably get a round of applause, followed by enthusiastic high-fiving and congratulations. "Here it's more likely to be polite applause," says Dr Roche.

Completing set tasks is an important part of Challenger's ethos. "It allows the kids to succeed at various points in the mission - and everybody gets to succeed, it's not just one person who is the hero," says Dr Roche.

A mission (or visit) takes two to three hours. The centre offers three scenarios aimed at different age groups. The Mars landing is structured for children aged 12 and over, a rendezvous with a comet is aimed for nine to 12-year-olds and an Earth landing could be attempted by students who are 14-plus. The programmes have been designed to give an authentic encounter with space, and as well as improving life skills such as team work and problem solving. They also help to cover parts of the maths, science, technology, English and geography curriculum at key stages 2 and 3.

New College is a newly-created school in the centre of Leicester. It has been using the Challenger experience to create a sense of ethos and belonging in the new Year 9. "We've been here every day this week," says science teacher Sue Wiseman. "This is the 10th group we've brought down."

But the experience isn't just about personal development and communication. The children are doing some real science. "It's a wonderful experience in terms of key skills," she says, "but on top of that you have the science national curriculum - it's got a lot to offer."

Until the main centre opens early in 2001, the Challenger Learning Centre is based at Leicester University, Victoria Park Road, Leicester LE1 7RJ. Tel: 0116 212 3347, or 0116 253 0811; e-mail: Each mission costs pound;175 plus VAT and last about two hours.

The centre holds 16-30 students easily, with a maximum of 36.

It produces information and work books for groups planning a visit; preparation work is advised.

The Challenger Learning Centre is part of the National Space Science Centre, 41 Guildhall Lane, Leicester LE1 5FQ.Tel: 0116 253 0811; fax: 0116 261 6800. This millennium project will open in the spring in the Abbey Meadows area of north Leicester. e-mail: Education manager Paul Roche.

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