It’s the final countdown... lift off on a space odyssey

11th December 2015 at 00:00
Tales of astronauts’ adventures help to engage pupils with scientific concepts

classroom practice

Ever since I was little, I’ve loved the thought of travelling through outer space. Part of the appeal is the excitement and challenge that come with space being the “final frontier”, but in reality it’s much more than that: space satisfies the human desire to explore and learn.

This is why space as a topic can be so useful to primary school teachers. Space, and in particular human space exploration, is an ideal topic to use to capture young students’ attention and explore key scientific concepts.

To help you make the most of the theme of space, here is a top 10 countdown of lessons that teachers can use in primary schools:

T-10: Variations on a rocket

Everyone loves a good explosion, and rocket science is all about controlled explosions. Newton’s third law can be demonstrated explosively with materials as simple as water, a fizzy drinks tablet (they are available online) and a “sports cap” drinks bottle. Fill your DIY rocket three-quarters full with water, drop in the tablet, seal it up, give it a shake, place it lid-down on a table, and wait. If you’re feeling adventurous, you can vary the temperature of the water, the amount of water or the amount of tablet.

T-9: Egg drop

This classic physics and engineering activity encourages students to think about how to protect precious cargo.

In the case of the Soyuz rocket that launches astronauts to the International Space Station (ISS), the cargo is human. In your classroom, ask the students to design and build a capsule that will protect an egg from the traumatic impact of a drop. Have your students make capsules with paper, sticky tape, glue and loo roll tubes. Once their eggs are loaded inside, find somewhere high and drop the capsules. This activity is adaptable to the needs and abilities of your students by changing the materials used and the height of the drop.

T-8: Astronaut nappies

In the early days of space flight, there were no toilets in the cramped capsules that the Russians and Americans sent up into space. Astronauts wore nappies with a special plastic compound called hydrogel. To this day, astronauts wear “maximum absorbency garments” (fancy nappies) when they go on spacewalks to repair the ISS. Hydrogels are available online in powder form and you can use them to show how they can absorb 400 times their weight in water.

T-7: Making blood boil

Doctors say that space begins at the Armstrong Line, where water will begin to boil at 37°C, the temperature of the human body. If your science department has a vacuum chamber, you can use it to show the effects of a vacuum on various liquids. Try putting the liquids in different-sized tubes and seeing what happens.

T-6: Ground control to Major Tom

The ISS has been inhabited continuously for 15 years. While astronauts have been doing some amazing science up there, they can’t be working all the time. In their downtime, a lot of astronauts like to chat with people back on Earth. They can do this in a variety of ways, but one of the oldest and most reliable is by radio. You can schedule a radio call with astronauts through the Amateur Radio on the International Space Station (ARISS) programme (

T-5: Mission control

When most people think of space, they think of astronauts. But astronauts make up only half of a space mission. Without the research, planning and communications capabilities of mission control, the astronauts wouldn’t know what to do. For this activity, split your class into two groups (astronauts and mission controllers), equip the astronauts with two-way radios, and send them into the yard to accomplish a task that only the mission controllers have the instructions for. Feel free to switch up the groups and introduce unexpected hazards such as communications blackouts or equipment failures.

T-4: Fun with gyroscopes

The ISS stays on course by spinning up to four large gyroscopes. These mind-bending engineering marvels employ one of the most important laws in physics to keep the ISS from falling into the Earth’s atmosphere: conservation of energy. Demonstrate this principle for your class with a bicycle wheel, simple handles and a chair that can spin. Screw handles on to either side of the bicycle wheel at the centre, start spinning the wheel between them and have a student sit on the chair while holding the spinning wheel upright. Ask them to turn the wheel to the horizontal and observe as they begin to rotate the other way. Ask them to change the direction of the wheel and ask what they feel.

T-3: Space station architect

The ISS is scheduled to be decommissioned in 2024, but that doesn’t mean humans are done with living in space. Have your class become “space station architects” and ask students to design the next space station. The next generation of space station should be modular (built in parts that can be brought up individually), needs to be able to power itself and should be able to house many different science experiments. This is a great problem-solving exercise that can be as simple or as detailed as time allows.

T-2: Artificial gravity

The next destination for humans is likely going to be Mars. Unfortunately, it takes a long time to get to Mars and we know that spending a long time in space is bad for your health. Astronauts lose bone and muscle mass when living without gravity, so one proposal is to “make” gravity for them on long spaceflights. The best way to make gravity is with rotation. Demonstrate this for your class by partially filling a bucket with water and swinging it in circles. The water doesn’t come out even when the bucket is inverted because the bucket is constantly accelerating.

T-1: Earth flag

The future of human spaceflight, like the ISS programme, is down to international cooperation. This cooperation should be represented by a flag, and who better to design it than your class? Ask students to design an Earth flag to be planted by the first colonists to Mars. Urge your budding vexillologists (experts in flags) to come up with reasons for their designs.

Kevin Fong is a space medicine expert and the Royal Institution’s 2015 Christmas lecturer. Find out more about the Christmas Lectures at

Space survival: the Royal Institution’s Christmas Lectures

I’m so excited to be delivering this year’s Christmas Lectures from the Royal Institution – “How to survive in space”. I’ll be delving into everything from rockets to space stations and trying to find out how we can protect human life along the way.

This is an exciting year for British space science because in December the first British astronaut for the European Space Agency, Tim Peake, will rocket into space to begin a six-month mission on the International Space Station. I’ve had the chance to chat with Tim (he beat me and thousands of other applicants to the seat on top of the Soyuz rocket on 15 December) and he’s passionate about engaging the next generation with science.

I’m hoping the lectures will fit into a wider conversation about human spaceflight, and young people watching will be inspired to ask questions and use their imagination so in the future they can help to write the next chapter of human exploration.

To find out more:

Early next year, you will be able to take part in a live lesson from space with Tim Peake on the ISS. To get more information, visit:

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