Is space science education tangible or virtual? If you remember, “The Apollo” missions enthused an entire generation of kids who desired to become astronauts and rocket scientists. Could NASA’s adventurous interplanetary journeys i.e. either the anticipated manned mission to Mars or return to Moon, potentially kindle the new generation’s quest to reach for the stars? Possibly yes, with focussed interventions and appropriate modifications in the classroom pedagogy. One of the biggest challenges faced in the stellar missions revolve around keeping the crew alive in the course of the journey. Earlier people fancied traversing beyond the Earth’s orbit. While scientists have kept the interest alive with myriad experimentations and novel discoveries, the question is whether humans can survive the long travel to the distant world.
In a recent initiative, experts tried seeking participation of schoolchildren from UK to help reveal the secret of sustaining life in space. In September 2015, the Royal Horticultural Society networked with the UK Space Agency to send two kilos of rocket seeds with British astronaut, Tim Peake to the International Space Station. The package was received on Earth in March with the NASA astronaut, Scott Kelly and to be distributed among 10,000 primary and secondary schools participating in a national experiment dedicated “to study the effect of space on the growth of plants.”
Scientists were hopeful that collecting a large data sample will enable further understanding on how factors like zero gravity and lack of micro-organisms in air, soil and water impact growth of plants and their development. The purpose was to identify which crops could be grown in a “space garden” and thereby provide a sustainable source of food and nourishment for astronauts. Also, this could help in understanding how air could support life of Martian explorers by transforming carbon dioxide into oxygen. Several schools participated in the experiment with the belief that these provide exciting opportunities to enhance student’s understanding of a range of curriculum topics, especially on something that is unknown to experts and teachers themselves.
Thus, such experiments could ignite interest in science lessons and wonders of discovery. Chris Britton, a science coordinator from a Manchester school expressed that, “There is still an enthusiasm for science but something like this will catalyse that interest. For a lot of students these days, if they don’t know something they can look it up on the internet. But because this experiment has never been done before, there is nothing out there that they can type into Google. It will hopefully engage them that bit more.”
Another teacher from the Luckington Community School in Wiltshire participating in the experiment mentioned that the school intended to “use a video of Tim Peake with seeds in space and ask children to use their imagination and subsequently hypothesise the outcomes of the experiment.” She said, “We are looking at what we have on our planet that helps us grow things and asking the students whether they think the seeds which were sent into space would be the same compared with if they had stayed on Earth. It is nice because you are starting from their perspective on what they think is going to happen and then actually doing the experiment.”
The UK Space Agency website features a cosmos of ideas for providing cross- curricular lessons to encourage the future generation of astronauts. At the primary level, the activity includes creating an “astro garden” of fruits and vegetables to be able to sustain nutriment requirement of a hungry astronaut. Such lessons aim at discovering the role of plants in the future of space exploration combined with making a greenhouse model suitable for growing crops on the Red Planet.
At the secondary schools, the project’s aim is to delve further into the scientific challenges of cultivating crops in space, i.e. understand dynamics of plant mutation, experimenting with artificial alternatives to soil and its effect on germination and growth. The Head of Education and Skills at the UK Space Agency, Jeremy Curtis exclaims that the “key challenge for space gardeners is transporting heavy bags of compost from Earth is not practical, particularly on a future long distance mission. Scientists therefore prefer to use a type of lightweight wool material that easily absorbs water and feeds the plant’s roots.” He says that schools cannot mimic zero gravity but suggests replicating a sterile atmosphere similar to that of a spacecraft by growing plants in the “bottle garden”. He exclaims that this simple topic enables inspiring students’ imagination and interest in science across all age groups. The ESA’s Life Support Coordinator, Dr. Christophe Lasseur says that, ““If you want garden in space you will have to do a lot of research to make sure that the environment for the plant is more or less known or controlled. Unlike on Earth, in space everything has to be artificial. You therefore need to develop another way of thinking which will give you a new approach to traditional gardening”.
NASA too has a Space Program which allows students from grade 5-8 to make reports on how rockets work. RocketModeler is a computer simulation program through which students can design and “fly” various models of rockets on their home or classroom PC. This module is facilitated through video conferencing and web conference presentation. With emphasis on Newton’s Laws of Motion and deliberating ideas on centre of gravity, stability and combustion, the program seeks to demonstrate the application of these principles on how satellites and astronauts enter into space.
Such initiatives that foster hands-on learning and thinking out of the box are launch pads for budding minds that wish to skyrocket in real-time. However, the real challenge lies in bringing such educational prospects to doorsteps of as many countries and students so that it does not restrict accessibility of ‘rocket science modules’ to developed countries alone.
Article by Rochita.