Stars in their eyes

7th January 2005 at 00:00
Studying the night skies is increasingly popular at GCSE. Chris Fautley reports how astronomy is blazing a trail at a school in Hastings.

I thought it would be great to have an extra GCSE that nobody else I knew would have," enthused Luke, a Year 10 student at The Grove specialist maths and computing college in Hastings.

That "scarcity factor", however, may be short-lived. From a modest start a few years ago, awarding body Edexcel say that the quantity and quality of GCSE candidates is growing; almost 600 sat the exam last summer, three-quarters earning a grade C or better. So, what is this flourishing subject?

Astronomy. Lynda Dunlop, astronomy teacher at The Grove, says that it mostly attracts students who are good at maths or science - but not exclusively: her class includes one who is in Set 9 for science. This year there are more girls than boys taking it, (the opposite of last year), and initially it was one girl and one boy who asked if she would consider teaching it.

For traditionalists, it may be a step too far. Think GCSE astronomy and you will almost inevitably be thinking expensive equipment, expert teachers and timetable constraints. Forget all that. In its second year at The Grove, astronomy is taught in an after-school club for one hour a week over the course of one year. Last year, 11 students took their GCSE and all bar one gained a grade C or better. One Year 9 girl was awarded an A*.

Ms Dunlop is a chemistry specialist and although already running a school rocket club, knew nothing about astronomy. "I was completely new to it. It was tough going," she says. "Some things I still find hard and have to think about," adding that her science background was invaluable.

As for specialist equipment? "Last year, we didn't have any equipment or telescopes," she says. Stargazing was limited to the naked eye, except when the local astronomy society brought their equipment to school - as they still do. "They were really keen," says Ms Dunlop, adding that such visits are one of the most effective ways of inspiring students. Trips to science centres, museums and the Royal Observatory enhanced the learning process.

With little more than a copy of the syllabus, Ms Dunlop began teaching a clutch of eager students. "I started at the beginning and worked my way through the course. And that was wrong," she says, explaining that its first part, (planet Earth), contains the "most boring, most difficult" concepts for students to understand. "This year I've started with the stars, which is what seems to inspire them most."

Meanwhile, the equipment situation is much improved. The Grove now has two telescopes: an eight-inch refractor (well-suited to planetary observations), and a 10-inch reflector (better for stars and galaxies).

These were purchased via a lottery "Awards for All" grant. Royal Society partnership funding has been received, and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC) gave a grant to the rocket club - used to support the rockets and gravity parts of the course.

Funding has recently been secured to enable the school to use the Faulkes Telescope Project. Specifically for astronomy education, pound;160 buys three live 30-minute observing sessions, via the web, on telescopes in Hawaii and Australia. "I've had a look at the images and they are amazing," Ms Dunlop says.

She has also received a grant from the Gatsby Teacher Fellowship, which promotes the teaching of science, technology and maths, to produce a scheme of work for GCSE astronomy. This should be available to all in the not too distant future.

So what, exactly, is the appeal of the subject and how does it differ from other sciences? "It's a lot more inspiring, because students are able to go out at night and make real physical links with their world," says Ms Dunlop. She believes pupils like the idea of the unknown - which is not quite so omnipresent in other sciences; that astronomy seems more challenging as basic concepts are constantly evolving; and that it appeals to a sense of drama as it frequently makes the news.

For the lucky, there is even the potential for once-in-a-lifetime experiences, such as last June's transit of Venus across the Sun. "That was a really nice surprise for them," Ms Dunlop says. And a breathtaking conclusion to a GCSE course.


Edexcel's course comprises five modules: planet Earth; the Moon and the Sun; the solar system; stars and galaxies; observing techniques and space exploration. Course work comprises 25 per cent of the final mark.


Make contact with local astronomy groups. Read up well before you start teaching. Use students' enthusiasm. Visit museums and observatories. Seek grants.


Using spectroscopy, astronomers can learn which elements are present in stars. This experiment demonstrates the principle: Take a nichrome wire loop with handle and wet it.

Dip into copper salt.

Insert into a blue Bunsen burner flame. Copper turns green. (Other elements turn different colours.) Link to the concept of spectroscopy and elements found in stars.


Encyclopedia of Space, by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest (Dorling Kindersley (pound;14.99) Practice Calculations for GCSE Astronomy, by Anne-Michelle D'Anjou and Mike Williamson (Mickledore pound;4.95) Faulkes telescopes:

The Gatsby Teacher Fellowship:

Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council:



To contact Lynda Dunlop, email:

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