WHAT YOU need to get kids engaged with science, technology, maths and technology (Stem), thought Dr Geoff Coxon, is a plane. A real-life plane. One that you can do a fly past with and then clamber inside.
Considering that planes are quite expensive and having one on school grounds would be logistically challenging, you might expect that the thought ended there.
But two years after coming up with the idea, the lecturer in medicinal chemistry at the University of Strathclyde had set up Skylab. And he had a plane.
“I thought it would be great if I could find a way to combine my love of planes with the same sort of educational outreach I’d been doing with medicine to inspire youngsters,” says Dr Coxon. “The first day we got the jet flying overhead you could just see the teachers, let alone the pupils, we’re just dumbstruck, thinking, ‘Is this really happening…and it’s free?’”
Let’s be clear, we’re not actually talking a low-level fly past of the school hall nor a rough landing on the playing fields. What Dr Coxon has done is set up a free regular event at which kids from schools all over the UK can travel to Scotland and see a plane in action.
The events take place at the National Museum of Flight in East Fortune, Scotland. “Lessons” are held under the body of a decommissioned Concorde and usually there are around 100 to 120 children aged between 10 and 13 from several schools in attendance. They spend two hours learning about how planes work – covering topics such as thrust, lift, drag and so on – and they then test this knowledge out with their own models.
After this pre-flight briefing, everyone heads outside to watch the theory in action with a demonstration flight from a real plane.
“The reaction we get to the flight is fantastic, teachers often tell us after that ‘the kids won’t stop talking about the day here’ or, ‘we’ve never seen them more engaged’,” says Dr Coxon.
While the plane is obviously the highlight, the whole event is geared to help pupils realise that Stem-based courses can lead to real, exciting careers. Volunteers include pilots and aircraft engineers, designers and developers.
Dr Coxon says the volunteers are not only vital for helping explain how aircraft work, but let children see the sort of people working in these kinds of careers.
“It’s really important that they can see these are normal people, a bit like them, who they can learn from,” he says.
The Skylab also works with schools to send these volunteers into classrooms to engage pupils by working with them to build and fly their own model planes, as well as providing educational packs and posters.
It may not end with the same excitement as a jet demonstration, but Dr Coxon says it can still have a huge impact.
“We went to a school in Edinburgh where we were teaching the children how airplanes take off using a little model with a rubber band. There was this one little girl who was really struggling to get hers to work, but one of our volunteers helped her to get it to work and when it did her face just lit up, she just couldn’t believe that she had made it fly.”
The Skylab has also expanded its remit to provide educational commentaries at air-show events, with Dr Coxon providing the soundtrack for the spectators. At these events, the Skylab has a marquee distributing the same educational packs, posters and models it uses at its own events, so youngsters and parents have the chance to discover more about the science behind flight.
In the future, he hopes to reach even more children. He is looking to create an educational kit that will be distributed to schools and that will work with the BBC microbit. In the meantime, he has secured a partnership for a different sort of kit to be distributed to schools. Working with the Royal Air Force, he has helped develop an education pack based around the engineering and technology of the latest Typhoon jet fighter. These will be used in a 250,000-pupil outreach program in schools across the UK and will be free upon request.
“This project has the potential to provide life-changing impact for thousands of school children,” says Dr Coxon. “To be able to partner with the RAF allows young people, and their families, access to people and technology that are simply breathtaking and awe-inspiring. What more exciting way could one hope to engage young people in to Stem?”
With all this going on Dr Coxon says he hopes the Skylab success will continue and that schools will find it possible to engage and inspire the teaching of Stem.
“The key is to do it in an engaging way and with real experts who can apply it to real vocations and uses for the future,” he says.
Dan Worth is a freelance writer and technology specialist. For more about the Skylab, visit theskylab.org.uk