One small step for Stem … one giant leap for careers

27th July 2018 at 00:00
Space travel can inspire students from diverse backgrounds to pursue science, says a US astronaut visiting Scotland to support a unique programme exploring the sector. By Henry Hepburn

Space, the final frontier – for Stem careers, that is.

A Nasa astronaut has told Tes Scotland that space provides the solution to the vexing question of how to get more people interested in pursuing Stem (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects.

Earthbound careers advice and recruitment drives have failed to identify and attract all the talent they should, argues astronaut Tony Antonelli, but space is the great leveller that can inspire anyone, whatever their background, to get into Stem.

“The world suffers from not enough students pursuing careers in those fields,” Antonelli says. He adds that Stem has historically not taken young people from a diverse enough range of backgrounds, meaning that “we’re not taking advantage of all the really bright minds that are available”.

For Antonelli, who was the Space Shuttle Discovery pilot on the STS-119 mission to the International Space Station in 2009, the skies provide an answer.

“Everyone’s looked up into the night sky, and you can’t help but wonder what else is out there,” Antonelli says. This, he explains, is why the topic of space helps to “cast a pretty wide net” when trying to get young people interested in Stem – the fascination it inspires can prevent them being “turned off too early” as they might be by more pedestrian approaches to science.

Antonelli, whose navy career helped him to become an astronaut, was in Scotland this summer for the week-long Mission Discovery event at the University of the West of Scotland’s (UWS) Paisley campus. More than 200 S3-4 pupils from around 30 Scottish schools learned about space and Stem from Antonelli, UWS professors and the International Space School Educational Trust.

Pupils put experiments in space

Pupils devised their own space experiments during the hands-on scheme – and the winning group will have its experiment carried out on the International Space Station.

Even getting on to the programme was a big deal for the participants – many of whom had never set foot on a university campus – but Antonelli wants these students to aim much higher, quite literally.

He says that he “didn’t grow up in the greatest neighbourhood of the greatest city”, having gone to elementary school on the outskirts of Indianapolis, where there was widespread poverty. To him, being an astronaut seemed a job for people from more rarefied surroundings.

Antonelli has since been back to his old school to tell the pupils not to make the same mistake. “We’re regular people, and when I grew up it didn’t seem like a job that regular people got to do,” he says. “But it turns out that it is – if you’re persistent enough and work hard enough, you’re going to get all kinds of different opportunities that other people might tell you aren’t possible or you might imagine [are] outside of your reach.”

Antonelli stresses that space is just the hook for the summer Stem programme and that not all pupils will necessarily aspire to studying or venturing into space – but says there are “all kinds of places and fields of study where the world needs help”.

The awe of the moon landings may seem to belong to the distant past, with headlines around space travel now hogged by flashy entrepreneurs such as Richard Branson and Elon Musk, who dream of commercial space exploration. Antonelli, however, insists that space travel is not an expensive indulgence and can make life better on Earth.

“The experience of getting to look down on Earth from a couple of hundred of miles up is so amazing,” he says. “I tell people that it’s going to catch on – people are going to want to do this. It’s in our future, I hope sooner rather than later.

“I think all of us will treat each other and treat the planet differently if we’ve seen it from a couple of hundred miles up with our own eyes.”

Chris Barber, founder of the International Space School Education Trust, says that astronauts remain a source of fascination and inspiration for school students.

“Space exploration and people like Tony – astronauts that have been in space – represent to the young people the cutting edge of human experience, human achievement,” Barber says.

UWS principal Professor Craig Mahoney says that when an astronaut turns up in a Nasa uniform, he sees pupils become “awe-inspired” and they “want to ask all sorts of questions” – often about how you go to the toilet in space or how food is prepared.

“Young people’s impression of space would be what they see in a movie like [the Star Trek films] or something else, not necessarily the realities of actually pretty mundane, day-to-day stuff,” he adds.

The week-long programme included a series of experiments: on day one, for example, students had to create a mechanism for landing an egg without breaking it, learning lessons about how to keep astronauts safe when they crash back to Earth in the process.

But the simple act of meeting an astronaut is hugely powerful in itself. As Mahoney says, even for him, it “sends a bit of shiver down my spine. This person has been into space, done something that I would never do – they’ve had an unbelievable experience.”

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