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Sunday 3 December 2023 Dublin: 1°C
Shutterstock/Sergey Nivens

We're getting children excited about outer space at an earlier age

My inner space nerd was delighted to be accepted onto the European Space Agency’s workshop for primary school teachers.

SINCE THE DISCOVERY of fire, emerging technologies have continued to reshape how we develop as a society. However, in recent years a declining number of Europeans are choosing to study the science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM) subjects, required to give them the skills to compete in our global innovation-led economy.

In response, the European Space Agency has greatly expanded its educational programme, particularly its resources aimed at much younger children and their educators.

Last November along with a wide range of exciting and engaging online activities and lesson plans, ESA launched Paxi, a green alien from the planet Ally-o, to take children (and grown ups) on exciting adventures through outer space. To further assist teachers to introduce the concept of science, technology and space exploration to the younger classes, ESA made 50 places available on its Annual Summer Teacher Workshop for primary school teachers. While applications were welcomed from across the 22 ESA member states, seven were secured by Irish primary school teachers from Dublin, Cork, Mayo, Tipperary and Waterford, and, my inner space nerd was delighted to be one of them.

We were introduced to the wonders and complexities of space

The programme was built around five key topics: Gravity, Rosetta, Planet Earth, Light and Human Space Explorations. Over the three days at ESA’s Space Research and Technology Centre (ESTEC) in Noordwijk, the Netherlands we were introduced to the wonders and complexities of each topic by leading space experts such as ESA astronaut André Kuipers, Rosetta Project Scientist Matt Taylor, award-winning solar astrophysicist Pål Brekke, and ESA Copernicus Space Segment Manager Guido Levrini.

ESERO educational experts from across the continent, followed up each presentations with a number of hands on workshops, demonstrating effective teaching methods to make space more relevant to 6-12 years old. For instance, after Dr Matt Taylor spoke about landing Rosetta, ESA’s Philae probe, on Comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko last November, we engaged in a more generalised discussion about comets and their possible role in bringing water to our planet. With a bit of guidance from Paxi, and ESERO educational experts, we then used custard powder to test homemade comets for water –an exciting, yet easy to carry out experiment, using everyday materials.

While experiments on comets will be an exciting new addition to my termly plans, not all workshops focused on introducing entirely new subject content. For example fifth and sixth class children across the country, are familiar with exploring the structure of the Earth by building and erupting volcanoes using vinegar and baking soda.

Simulating observations 

After Guido Levrini’s inspiring presentation on “Earth Observation for Security and Climate Control”, ESERO’s educational experts took our volcano making lesson to the next level: we stimulated the observations of this experiment from space. Using a web cam as an “eye the sky” satellite, we guided a rescue mission to evacuate Lego personnel safely from the “erupting volcano”. The camera provided an effective example of introducing science and technology in an exciting and meaningful way.

Over the course of the three days it became clear that the exciting, freely available resources are aimed to complement our Irish Primary School Curriculum.

International cooperation

The final theme of the conference, Human Space Explorations, was introduced by Andre Kuipers, the first Dutch astronaut to visit space twice. Since 2000, there has been continuous human occupation of the International Space Station, carrying out missions that require Europe, Russia, Japan, Canada and the US to continuously communicate through even the most extreme political tensions. The project Kuipers explained, is completely depended on international cooperation. As long as the ISS remains up there the astronauts, cosmonauts and project scientist are entirely dependent on one another.

This positive example of the international cooperation is an immediately accessible example of the positive outcomes of collaboration learning for primary school children. Furthermore, space experts like Kuipers and Taylor, who document their journeys on Youtube, Instagram and Twitter make for positive science and technology role models for young children. Additionally Italian astronaut Samantha Cristoforetti, whose absence from the conference was most likely due to the fact that she has just returned from the ISS to train in Houston, is an extremely powerful role model for young girls and women. As well as documenting her extraordinary daily life on the ISS, she often records herself reading abstracts from the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, in space.

It is important that we harness the imagination our youngest school goers

Having spent the three days at ESERO Noordjwick, I’m looking forward to working with ESERO Ireland and Science Foundation Ireland to develop exciting workshops to support the teaching of space as a cross curricular theme in the Irish primary school classroom.

Furthermore, if Europe is to continue to meet its aspirations to remain a world leader in science and technology it is important that we harness the imagination our youngest school goers, and inspire them to continue to take up STEM subjects at second and third level.

Carla Hayes is a teacher at Scoil Náisiúnta Muire & Iósef Sóisear, Bayside, Sutton, Dublin 13. She qualified in 2009 with a Bachelor of Science, and in 2014 with a Higher Diploma in Primary Education.

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