the site of Adam Stevens

School Space Agency

In May last year, I was delighted to win the Space Zone of I’m A Scientist, Get Me Out of Here. The prize was £500 to spend on an engagement project.

I’ve had a plan for a long term project with a school for a while. It would involve designing space missions to give kids an idea of what the engineering process is really like. The prize money gave me a chance to put my plan into action.

The first step was to hold a “Rocket day” at the Radcliffe School in Wolverton. I was connected with the school through IOP, since they funded the Space Zone. Radcliffe is part of the IOP’s Stimulating Physics network. The rocket day was a chance for me to strut my stuff and get to know some of the kids. Some of the prize money helped to buy materials, including a bottle rocket kit, and prizes for the end of the day.

During the day, the kids went into teams to design a mission to Mars. We went through the process of creating a specification, thinking about what such a mission would need. You can see their final designs below.

After a very enjoyable day at the school, it was time to start planning a more long term activity. I specifically wanted to work with a small group of kids over a few weeks. Fortunately, the school has a VLH programme where all their pupils choose an activity to take part in on a Wednesday afternoon. It seemed like a perfect fit.

As part of the VLH, we had two half-term long (7 week) sessions, with an hour each week. The rest of the prize money bought materials, books to do research from, and some tools to make the sessions more exciting. I designed the first session (both times) to be nothing but coming up with ideas – no limitations, anything that the kids came up was fair game. After setting the scene and making clear that the only limits were their imaginations, the first group (of all boys) immediately… stared at me blankly. Still, over the next week fews we managed to get them to think slightly sideways compared to what they were used to, and they came up with some great ideas. The process was democratic, with the group voting for what they thought were the best ideas, whittling it down until we had a manageable number. Eventually the group chose between general outlines – Mars exploration vehicles and supply vehicles. As we went along, they built models and refined their designs. By the end of the time we had together they had a good set of projects.

Then, we did it again, with a different group. This time, the kids worked more cohesively, with a number of groups designing different parts of the same whole. Similar threads ran through both groups, with supply vehicles making an appearance, alongside spaceships sent to colonise other planets.

I had always wanted the project to be have a conclusion that was worth the effort. The idea was for the kids to present their designs to real professionals from the space industry. So, last week, we made the journey to the National Space Centre, where academics from Leicester university chatted to them about their work. The kind people at the space centre also allowed us to wander round the exhibits, meaning the kids got a chance to see the results of real space missions and the hardware involved. We also managed to catch the ‘We Are Astronomers’ planetarium show before heading home. The judges had nothing but praise for the kids and their work, but awarded a special prize to The Tortoise, a colony ship with great safety features.

 

A little evaluation form was passed out at the end of our trip. Although the questions were wholly retrospective (I would hand one out at the beginning of the project next time), they give some idea of the impact of the project. More than half of the kids involved said that their interesting in ‘physics’, ‘space’, and ‘design’ had increased, and nearly all of them said their interest in ‘engineering’ had increased. All but two said they would recommend talking part to their friends. The points that stuck in their heads seemed to be about rocket fuel, the costs of space travel, and the problems of living in space like recycling water and nasty food. To improve, they said the project should have more or more varied practical activities and make better use of computers. These are all things that I also thought while we were going through the project.

I have to thank a number of people for their help, input and patience through this project. Firstly, thanks to the Radcliffe School science department for agreeing to be my guinea pigs and letting me run with my (possibly) crazy ideas. Special thanks to Will Jakeman, Gill Callow, and Stuart Liggins for looking after me and putting up with incessant emails. Thanks to I’m A Scientist for letting me take part, and the IOP for the prize money. Additional funding for our final trip came from the UK Space Agency’s ‘Space For All’ scheme, and Jeremy Curtis from the UKSA put me in touch with Sarah Hill at the National Space Centre, who proved to be an invaluable resource and arranged a brilliant day for the kids, as well as finding some great judges (including herself) without whom the project would not have had such a great climax. Finally, and most importantly, thanks to the kids for keeping an open and making the project great fun and, I hope, a success.

Hopefully my little pilot project might be able to do some more in future…

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