Space-Based Learning: Thoughts from ASMS
Australian Science and Mathematics School
Much importance is placed on the need to prepare students for future growth industries, and as 2017 demonstrated, the Australian Space industry has not only future growth potential in South Australia but retains its captivating, alluring nature. As such it is an excellent context for engaging learning. So how does it fit into our program, and why is it important? Here we present three recent ways in which ASMS staff and students have engaged with space, both directly and indirectly.
Space in an Interdisciplinary Curriculum
The ASMS has a long history of running interdisciplinary units with space themes as part of our curriculum offering, offering students the chance to engage with a range of different facets of the science, humanity and mathematics associated with space exploration. A good example is the 2016 implementation of a semester long unit called Earth and Cosmos, which explored the key questions of ‘How did we get here?’, ‘What’s out there?’, and ‘How do we get there?’ Around the time of planning and implementing this course, some staff attended the first SA Space Forum, which gave a few interesting directions to consider.
There are, however, many engaging and fertile questions central to our future, and we review our curriculum regularly. So why does space always find a place? Like many other themes, it is certainly topical, with growth potential. Space, though, provokes curiosity. For millennia people have observed the sky, with celestial patterns and events forming an intricate part of the human social narrative. Space exploration has been a glamourous and public affair, and is synonymous with scientific, technological and human achievement. It is partly this combination which makes it so powerful for curriculum, providing students a genuine insight of multiple aspects of Science as a Human Endeavour. Space is exciting – the recent SpaceX launches and the calls for volunteers for a colony on Mars are guaranteed to draw comment, and provide a sense of activity and urgency. Perhaps most of all, the big questions associated with space can be analysed from a vast range of perspectives. No matter a student’s passion, there is a connection which can provide the motivation to explore the science.
Space is a powerful motivator for questioning the fundamentals of the existence of life, and so the science is not restricted to the more obvious topics of rocketry and telescopes. From estimating the immense number of planets possibly harbouring life and the implications of contact with other species, to the radical conditions in which extremophiles may exist and the fundamental constituents of life, students are provoked by science to examine who we are. In this way space provides a very terrestrial connection between the exploration and application of scientific knowledge, and the exploration of sapience and humanity.
The explosion in exoplanet discovery (currently more than 2300 by the Kepler spacecraft alone, including 30 around Earth size in habitable zones) has been of great interest. The second module asked students to choose one such planet as a home world, and the diversity of the conditions on these different planets led to a differentiated approach to exploring aspects of planetary science and its implications for the presence and sustenance of life. The motivations behind space exploration, including the legal aspects of claiming sovereignty and colonisation, and some of the historical fascination with space exploration and conflicts of civilisation in literature create the need to know about the distances and scales involved, linking with astronomy and the origins of the universe. Although many students are interested in these scientific topics for their own sakes, it is sometimes said that the Big Bang part of the Australian Curriculum can appear somewhat dry. Using the broader picture of space and focussing on the big questions, the human fascination with how everything began can provide an exciting context and reason to investigate this material.
Throughout this module, we took some of our preliminary steps to integrate mathematics with the rest of our curriculum through problem based learning, attacking questions such as ‘How would it feel to parachute onto a planet?’ This generated some very interesting responses which blended the science, maths and creative expression, in a 200 minute block.
Space provides an interesting context to explore motion and Newton’s laws; looking at gravitation of different planets, the motions of stars, and how to use trigonometry to work through astrometric calculations. We were also able to use the space context to connect some of the Stage 1 mathematics concepts around rates of change and calculus to help deepen understanding of motion concepts. We finished our module looking at optimisation of a Mission to Mars, bringing together a range of different constraints and scenarios across the sciences – biology and psychology as well as physics.
In 2018 we will be running Earth and Cosmos again, and we will seek to capitalise on the rich interdisciplinary connections and the excitement that they generate. The dynamic nature of the space sector gives us new ideas and events to incorporate, even in only two years!
The presence in Adelaide of the 2017 International Astronautical Congress generated an excitement that was initially tempered by the fact that we weren’t running a dedicated space course during that year. However, the events around the week were big news and drew in students from across the board. The opportunities to meet astronauts and people working in space agencies at the education events and the conference itself gave us a challenge – what will have the most impact, now and ongoing?
Students were offered the chance to volunteer to help at the conference for part of a day during the week, and attend sessions while there. We had a great response to the call, with fifteen students accepted into the volunteer program. This program was valuable for many reasons – its unique nature appealed to students encouraged applications from some students who may not have been identified by teachers. The expressions of interest got students thinking about space and about how their interests were developing. We had uniformly positive feedback from those volunteers who attended, with excellent engagement and questioning; undoubtedly a real learning experience. The primary criticism was that they were only able to attend for a single day!
Some students and their families chose to register as conference delegates and attend extra conference sessions that week. The excitement as the volunteers reported on their experiences throughout the week had other students who had not been involved expressing an interest to find out more about space. What was returned to the school was an excitement and appreciation for the grand scale and breadth of the projects involved in space; and an initial survey of the 2018 Stage 2 Physics cohort had space and astronomy as key interests for a significant fraction of students.
Associated with the IAC was the SA Schools Space Mission Challenge, in which teams of students suggested experiments to be run at the ISS, with a staged competition potentially leading to an experiment launch for three such teams. A team of ASMS students took up this challenge, and learnt a huge amount about project management, team dynamics and leadership, engineering and microbiology. Having this team able to present their idea at the IAC was a great opportunity, and their selection for the next round of the competition an added bonus providing an engaging ongoing student-driven project. Being involved with this competition was a key part of raising the awareness and attracting the IAC volunteers.
We were also able to take a group of students to a session with engineers working on the James Webb Space Telescope, and their questions showed interests in virtually all aspects of the engineering and the physics of orbits.
So why is this so beneficial? Although these events are transient, they provide a connection to and an insight into the happenings in an exciting field, and surface some of the student interests and ideas that may otherwise not find a forum. The ongoing legacy of this event lies less in the specific sessions but rather in our greater understanding of the sort of questions to ask in this area and hence the learning we can design with our students, and expose future cohorts to the excitement of and careers available in space. At a point where the full implementation of Science as a Human Endeavour in the senior years is being shaped, space has provided a beautiful and natural example.
There are always students with a fascination with the night sky, whether or not they have had the opportunity to observe it. A camp can be a great way to give these opportunities. We have run overnight astronomy camps at Monarto aiming to provide this experience – with mixed success due to cloud! So how do you plan an astronomy camp around the changeable weather, and what are you hoping for if the sky is clear?
A pre-astronomy discussion and crash course about the structures and scales of the universe, and how and why the sky rotates, gives a focus for the evening. In our experience the questions start slowly, but the discussion is self-sustaining. Now that many students have phones with them it is possible to look up quick facts – it’s useful to have someone at least passingly familiar with astronomy to guide the discussion, but detailed fact memory is not necessary!
What about clouds? The discussions are of course still possible, and looking at how the telescope works is always a bonus. The key thing is not to give up – there are often breaks even for half an hour in one direction which allow seeing something interesting, and make staying up half the night worthwhile. When we run the camp at Monarto, students are involved with a zoo program, which gives a second focus. If you have the opportunity to combine like this I would recommend it!
So does equipment cost a fortune? It certainly doesn’t have to. A telescope is a must, but modest sizes that are easy to transport will allow plenty of interesting viewing and are relatively inexpensive. Cheap and cheerful is great. Consider some of the truss-style Dobsonian mounts – these save money and are easy to manoeuvre. There are plenty of good suppliers happy to help.
ASMS has a 12 inch telescope, which gives great viewing but is unwieldy. We’ve just obtained a solar filter which should allow us to use it during the day. It is large and heavy so to make it easier to take to darker locations, we have just upgraded its case. With this type of telescope, we’re able to look at anything from planets to some of the deeper sky objects.
When we plan the camps, we tend to choose a darker moon phase to allow some viewing of nebulae and faint objects. The most important, though, is to find a time when at least some of the brighter planets are visible. With our cohorts, we have found that the wonder of seeing Jupiter or Saturn for the first time with a telescope generates the most discussion and interest afterwards – so very highly recommended. Sometimes this means two sessions to the astronomy – one as it gets dark, and then another session getting up very early to see planets rising before dawn.
Binoculars are a great asset as they are easy and quick to align, and provide an interesting way to see the sky. One of the benefits of the darker times is seeing students teach each other about any knowledge they have about constellations as darkness falls, then completely lose their bearings as the richness of the Milky Way opens up and the familiar patterns are swamped with light.
The various astronomy apps that show augmented reality constellations, names, and points of interest over the sky as a phone is held up are excellent, and allow students to reorient themselves and to act as their own tour guides on a clear night – make sure students know about these in advance so that they can be preinstalled.
So why build space into learning?
At the ASMS, space is a key part of our interdisciplinary curriculum, and gives us interesting ways to approach a wide range of scientific learning. Its currency in South Australian industry and global connections link to engineering, science and entrepreneurial skills, and astronomy captures student interests and provokes wonder. It doesn’t have to be a whole semester, but even a small unit can capture and hook into some of these themes, and the diversity of endeavours either towards space exploration or as useful spin-offs mean that there are connections almost anywhere if you know to look. So if you have an idea, or a connection, or just a plain curiosity, explore it, and create extraordinary learning – the sky really isn’t the limit.