Science blasts off at primary space camps

19th February 2016 at 00:00
Fun-filled activities based on space missions launch a passion for Stem subjects

School: The final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Shrubland Street Primary School. Its mission? To explore exciting astronomical topics and heighten cross-curricular opportunities, to boldly go where no school has gone before: to set up space camps.

Captain’s log, stardate 19 February 2016: “Since it first launched in November 2014, Shrubland’s Space Camp project has caught the imagination of everyone at the Leamington Spa primary school. From the pupils to the parents to the cleaners and office secretaries, all are fully engaged, excited and eager to volunteer. And now the Space Camp programme is set to roll out across 10 new schools…”

First contact

Amanda Poole loves science. She loves teaching science, too. And she’s pretty good at it: her impressive CV includes a Primary Science Teacher of the Year award from the Primary Science Teaching Trust and the fact that she is an Ogden Trust Fellow, having established and developed the Ogden Trust’s Phiz Labs in 2012 (these are dedicated science labs in primary schools – for more information, visit

Now the Shrubland Street teacher is attempting to surpass these achievements by bringing space science to the masses through space camps. It was an idea that started from a source of irritation.

“I’ve always wanted to find a way of using telescopes in class, but the students have all gone home when it’s dark,” Poole explains. “I remember being at my son’s Cubs camp and I thought about a lot of the children in the school who would never have that experience – at the time, we had very high pupil premium. It suddenly all came together: a residential that’s low-cost and allows children to be in school when it’s dark enough to do astronomy.” As Elon Musk is currently finding with his attempts to land a rocket, having an idea and making it work are very different challenges. But Poole put her idea swiftly into action.

She submitted her concept to the Shine Trust – a charity that awards money to teachers who use innovative practice to help disadvantaged students through its Let Teachers Shine programme (see box, above right).

Poole was awarded £11,050 for telescopes, tents and camping kit. She created lesson plans, completed risk assessments, consulted firefighters and sought police advice. Finally, all was ready. Together with her teaching assistant, Sam Croston (pictured, below left), she invited 29 Year 6 pupils to their first mini-space camp in the school hall.

A cornucopia of scientific activities awaited: constellation projectors, a planetarium show from the University of Warwick’s astronomy outreach team, a Q&A with an astronomer, and light lab dispersion experiments to find out how astronomers get so much information from starlight.

“It was planned to a tee,” says Poole, but she admits that the first camp was a useful learning experience for her as much as for the students.

“The children came in and saw all the tents laid out on the floor ready to set up and they were so excited that they took over an hour to get it all sorted. It was crazy. They were over the moon the whole night and so excited that they were still yacking away at 2am. So we learnt a few lessons that night and the latest we’ve ever gone to sleep now is 11pm. We’re all a lot more used to the concept now.”

Since the excitable inaugural launch, 320 pupils have taken part in 15 nights of camping. There have been 10 one-night mini-space camps in the school and one space camp “max”, a five-day camping trip for pupil-premium students held during Easter half term at a local Scout campsite. During the five days, the pupils enjoyed nightly telescope observations, a field trip to the National Space Centre in Leicester, rocket launches with Warwick’s air and space society and numerous physical and scientific exercises from the Nasa Mission X project ( On top of space activities, the children also learned camping and survival skills, such as putting up tents and fire-building.

The sky’s the limit

Poole says that the camps don’t just benefit science teaching, but multiple subject areas, so it is a true cross-curricular project. There’s the obvious crossover into maths and physical education, but art and technology are also involved – as the students make junk rockets, scale-model planets and space stations. Year 2 pupils even learned about food when they prepared a picnic for a visit to the moon. And there are clear PSHE benefits, too.

All years also practise creative and formal writing, including stories and letters of thanks to professors and professionals for their visits. One particularly successful exercise involved writing letters to real-life Apollo 13 astronaut Jim Lovell, who was lecturing in the UK at the time. He responded with a tweet, a photo of him reading the letters and a message saying, “Aim high!”

As for the science itself, Poole really does aim high…

“The science content is way beyond their curriculum!” she laughs. “But it’s also developing a real love for the subject; some of them are now interested in studying it at university. A lot of them don’t come from university families, so it’s not something that’s expected of them. Thanks to our strong link with Warwick, spending time with PhD students and lecturers and learning from them raises hopes and aspirations. It’s awe-inspiring. Every day I have students talking to me about seeing the International Space Station or making rocket packs, getting a new telescope for Christmas or how they have been following [British astronaut] Tim Peake’s recent mission on the ISS. Their imagination is fuelled by it.”

Major Peake, star of the TES Cosmic Classroom space link-up earlier this month, is also a keen follower and supporter of the Space Camp project on social media. So are the parents. In fact, they complained that they couldn’t get involved themselves. The school’s response? To host Saturday classes, where parents and pupils make mechanical rockets and launch them in the sports field of a local secondary school.

The natural question at this point is whether the idea is really replicable. After all, the costs are not insignificant. Poole’s reply is that it definitely is, and she can prove it. Later this year, this opportunity will be available for 10 more schools.

The Shine Trust was happy to provide further funding for kit for schools in London, Surrey, Leicester, Birmingham and Coventry – all of which the Shrubland Street office staff have ordered and organised.

The roll-out into new schools has also involved Poole and Croston hosting a training session in January, showing teachers the exercises and activities and going through the admin and health-and-safety logistics. They have also launched a website, which the schools will be able to use to contribute their own exercises, thoughts and approaches to ensuring that the Space Camp programme constantly develops and improves.

“There’s a lot of willingness to help us develop it,” explains Poole who last year won a prestigious place at the Honeywell Educators Space Academy at the US Space and Rocket Centre in Alabama.

“The great thing is that schools can do it as they want,” she says. “We do it with all six years while a neighbouring school just does it with their Year 5 pupils when their curriculum includes space. We invited them to our own space camp so they could see how it works and they’ve set their own up as a result. It’s really inspiring to see people so engaged and motivated by it all.”

Dave Jenkins is a freelance writer and editor based in South Wales. He covers a variety of trade and consumer topics @davethejenkins

Star trekkin’

Science teacher Amanda Poole (pictured) reveals her favourite space camp activities:

Astronaut urine purification “One of our children’s favourite activities. We make some artificial wee with water, lemon juice, salt and some tissue so it has some floating material in it. Then we give them a range of equipment such as filters, funnels, bottles, charcoal and sand and see how well they purify the ‘wee’.”

Rocket making “We’ve made a lot of rockets from different materials but my favourite ones are Rokit launchers. They’re fittings that you attach to a pop bottle, which children can decorate how they like. Fill them halfway with water and attach a footpump. When the pressure reaches its peak, the rocket launches. They can go up to 30 metres high.”

Constellation projectors “These are great, especially on a cloudy night. You fold a card up into separate segments and draw a pattern of a constellation on each section, then poke a hole on each star and label the constellation. Then, in a dark room, you place the card on the torch so the constellation will light up.”

Cash for teachers who Shine

“The Shine Trust is really excited to be launching the fifth year of Let Teachers Shine, our competition for teachers who have a bright idea of how to support children from disadvantaged backgrounds to succeed in English, maths or science,” says Paul Carbury, the education charity’s chief executive.

“The competition launches on 26 February and teachers can apply for up to £15,000 to get their project started or, if it’s already established, take it to the next level.”

Shine is the national charity that supports teacher-led innovation with disadvantaged young people. The 2016 competition runs from 26 February to midnight on 17 April.

For more information and an application form, visit:

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