While some in the United States see the country falling behind in education when compared to the rest of the globe, Francesco Emma, head of the European Space Agency’s (ESA) education office, also says changes need to be made in the way science subjects are taught in school in order to bring young minds to the industry. “The issues related to STEM are quite important in Europe as, in the last decade, there has been a constant decrease in the number of students involved in this domain,” he says. “We recognize that attracting youngsters towards STEM subjects requires a change in the way science is taught at school. Space, with its innate fascination, represents a perfect tool to raise the interest of new generations. Efforts need to be done starting from pupils in primary schools though, because they feed upstream into the whole educational chain. It is for these reasons that the agency has engaged in wide project involving primary and secondary school students in Europe by developing teaching tools with the help of teachers that act as multiplying factors in the educational process.”
While Europe has a myriad of cultures and languages, coordinating a European-wide policy in this area is not easy. “At the school level for primary and secondary education, we recognize that Europe has different education systems, therefore, rather than going top down to target students, we tend to use a bottom up approach,” says Emma. “We have a network of offices throughout Europe that work at the local level, but where we can share information. The European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) is our main project addressing the community of students and teachers of primary and secondary education. Five offices have been set-up so far and our ambition is to expand them throughout Europe.”
The Centre National d'Études Spatiales (CNES), the French space agency, has a key role in bringing space education throughout France. As France is one of the Europe’s main centers for space, this places CNES at the forefront of European education issues. “CNES has considered it important to develop specific activities directed at young people. From the outset we adopted a practical experimental approach to scientific research and space technologies,” says Anne Serfass-Denis, head of the Youth and Education Department, CNES. “For younger children, we use space to get them interested in science and technology, which both contributes to their scientific culture and encourages them to consider taking scientific subjects at school by making them aware of space through the activities mentioned above.”
The changing times means organizations such as CNES need to find new means of reaching out to young people. “We have recently developed a Web site especially for young people containing information adapted to their school needs and links to appropriate centers of interest. We are well aware that we also need to approach young people through sites that have nothing to do with space, and we are working gradually towards this, though we no doubt still have a lot to learn on this subject,” says Denis. “CNES also thinks in terms of a wider public and we are developing a social media strategy using networks like Facebook, Twitter and Dailymotion with the aim of attracting a public that knows less about space activities. We have set up a blog entirely dedicated to the image of space, and we are developing tools for a more interactive relationship with the press. This strategy is already beginning to bear fruit, but a lot remains to be done. We should obviously like to target a much broader public than the young alone.”
The U.K. government has giving a ringing endorsement to space-related activities, and wWith the recent creation of a U.K space agency, the next challenge will be to make sure the United Kingdom develops the next generation of engineers. EADS Astrium has been developing a program based around a curriculum for students ages 11 to 18. “What that does is that it involved a half-day visit so pupils can come in, which is based around the question of space and you and why space is relevant to you,” says Victoria Hodges, AOCS engineer, EADS Astrium. “They start off with a short 10-minute presentation about the company. Some local schools don’t even know we exist. We move into a quick activity called ‘Space in Daily Life.’ This is a written scenario based around a day in the life of a typical school student. They are asked to read through this scenario and highlight where they think space plays an important role in daily life, for example the weather forecast. We then take them through the scenario identifying the answers, this aims to give them a feel for some things they already know about — and maybe some things don’t. After that, we do a workshop with them to highlight how satellites are built. We call it the ‘Satellite Engineering’ workshop. There are 10 engineering bases, and at each of the bases, there are different pieces of hardware such as thermal blankets and pieces of satellite panels. They are encouraged to pick them up and investigate them,” and there are worksheets for students of different age levels to fill out.
EADS Astrium is drilling down even further, “increasingly Increasingly doing more work in primary schools. We mostly focus on ages eight upward. We also occasionally focus on younger children,” says Hodges. “There, we do something called ‘balloon rockets,’ and we try and teach them the basic principles of rockets and use long balloon, and put little cardboard things around them. There is no math involved. It is more talking about principles and trying to get them to appreciate the theory, rather than doing sums,” she says. Other initiatives include programs about building satellites out of cardboard, paper, tin foil and selotape. “They have a payload (an egg) which they have to protect, and they have to cost it all up as well. They have to do a cost benefit analysis and trade off between different possible options. At the end, we have a competition and do a vibration test. Basically, we put them in a big box and get teachers to come and shake it quite violently and see whose egg survives in a cardboard satellite. Surprisingly, some of them do. There is a lot of cheering and shouting going on at that point. We can do that on-site and take it to schools,” she says.