Could Nasa blast science into orbit?

This week, a group of prizewinning British teenagers visited the space centres in Florida and Texas to learn how astronauts train. The hope is that the trip will inspire the next generation to study physics and chemistry. Steve McCormack reports
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It has to be the school prize of a lifetime - learning how to be an astronaut and seeing the space shuttle land in Florida as guests of Nasa. Thirty-four British teenagers, from 10 state schools, are coming to the end of a 12-day trip to Nasa's two main bases: Cape Canaveral on Florida's Atlantic coast and Mission Control in Houston, Texas. The adventure was their reward for winning a science competition, Edge into Space, run by Edge, the British educational foundation that campaigns for more practical learning in schools, colleges and the workplace.

The pupils have received first-hand accounts from Nasa's rocket scientists and trained astronauts of the technological and engineering hurdles that have been overcome to send men and women into space. And they've seen the launch pads, control rooms and rockets used in the US space programme. But to what extent will the visit prove the catalyst for cementing a lifelong enthusiasm for science in their lives? And can such competitions help to counter the sinking popularity of science in British schools? The first question is easier to answer than the second.

For the competition, students had to think up an idea for something that could be used, or tested, in space. Twenty-four teams were short-listed and invited to a weekend in Birmingham in March, to make presentations and demonstrate prototypes of their ideas. The judges included Professor Colin Pillinger, the man behind the Beagle mission to Mars, and Michael Foale, the British-born Nasa astronaut. "The quality of entries was amazing," says Pillinger. "It was very hard to choose between them." But choose they did and last week, 10 teams - of between two and four pupils, ranging in age from 13 to 18 - flew to Cape Canaveral, site of Nasa's space mission launches since the historic days of the first moon landing. Awaiting them was a schedule rich in education, adventure and fun. "Our aim is to put pupils from ordinary backgrounds in touch with the world's greatest scientific programme," says Chris Barber, from the International Space School Education Trust, the British organisation co-ordinating the visit with Edge.

Among the highlights was a day of astronaut training, when the students tried out simulator machines to recreate weightlessness, moon gravity and the feeling of being in a space capsule spinning its way to Earth. These were the same machines used by Neil Armstrong, the first man to walk on the moon in 1969, and his present-day successors.

"It's just been incredible what we've been able to see and do," says Zareen Butt, 17, a sixth former from Shenley Brook End School in Milton Keynes. "We'd never get the opportunity for anything like this anywhere else."

The pupils also sat in a mock-up of Houston's Mission Control room and, linked by headphones to others in a life-size model of the space shuttle cockpit, followed the procedures for launching the 2,000-ton rocket into space and landing it back on Earth. "It was amazing how complex it was," says Zareen's school friend, Graeme Taylor, 16, emerging wide-eyed from the simulator. "It gave me an insight into how much they have to remember."

Throughout their stay, the students also grappled with the jaw-dropping engineering facts that confronted them at every turn: how the shuttle experiences temperatures of 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit as it flies back to Earth, and how half a million gallons of fuel is consumed in the first eight minutes of the mission.

Sitting in the control room that sent Apollo 8 to circumnavigate the moon for the first time in 1968, the teenagers saw film footage of how a captivated world experienced it. As they did, their faces filled with the same expressions of wonder as those of a generation nearly four decades before.

And on Monday morning, those expressions were even more awestruck, as the group watched the space shuttle, Discovery, with six astronauts on board, landing safely after Nasa's latest mission.

The teenagers relished watching science come alive in front of their eyes. Many thought this would fire a deeper interest on their return home. "I'm definitely going to be even more keen on science now, when I get back to school,' says Andrea Adamou, 14, from a girls comprehensive in Enfield, north London.

But what of the wider picture? These students are aware that their enthusiasm for science puts them in a minuscule minority back home. At some schools, they were the only pupils, among more than a thousand, who took any interest in the competition. At others, they attracted ridicule for doing "more work" in a "boring subject". This anecdotal evidence is supported by statistics. A-level entries for maths, physics and chemistry have dropped sharply in the past 20 years, while other subjects have soared in popularity. One of the complicated set of contributory factors is the decline of science practical work.

John Holman, the director of the Government's recently opened National Science Learning Centre, at York University, acknowledges this is part of the reason for teenagers becoming turned off from science. "Excessive testing is squeezing out the opportunities to do hands-on science," he says. "Too many teachers are becoming excessively preoccupied with safety, so that they leave practical elements out of lessons."

His centre, and others around the country, are starting to address this by running extra training sessions for school science teachers to help "reconnect them with the frontiers of science". It's a much needed start, says Pillinger. "Don't just keep asking kids to write things down," he pleads. "Practical project work makes science much more interesting."

This chimes with the philosophy at Edge. It plans to run a similar schools' competition, focusing on a different subject, next year, and to repeat the Nasa experience in 2008. Vanessa Miner, Edge's communications director, is optimistic that the competition can be a catalyst for wider change. "More than 4,000 children entered the competition," she says. "The winners will return from this experience as ambassadors for a greater enthusiasm for science."

Simon Clark, 15, from Wellsway School, near Bristol, knows that his school plans to use his team's success for this purpose. "We want to show everyone that advanced science can be fun," he says. "It's not just about lessons with old men with beards in classrooms."

Teachers accompanying the pupils express varying degrees of optimism for the future. Paul Cowley, head of science at Bishop Rawstorne in Lancashire, doubts that one trip, albeit a superb one, can lead to the opening up of science to the masses, and bemoans the way science departments are closing at some universities. But he plans to encourage year-groups, consisting of hundreds of pupils, to get involved in future Edge competitions. Alison Alvarez, head of science at a Tower Hamlets comprehensive in east London, plans to partly reshape the GCSE science curriculum to include several space-related topics, with as much practical work as possible.

Mike Grocott, a physics teacher, from Callington Community College in Cornwall, has established a space centre at the school, convinced of the power that space has to enthuse young minds.

Watching this year's competition winners enjoying themselves by the pool after another day immersed in Nasa experiences, he draws a parallel with the first stage of investment in any business project. "This is the seed-funding for increasing the popularity of science among future generations," he says with a mix of enthusiasm and resolve for the future.

Two of the winning ideas from the space competition

A refuelling station for interplanetary travel:

Four 13- and 14-year-old boys from Bishop Rawstorne College, a comprehensive in Lancashire, proposed a method of providing spaceships of the future with a convenient means of refuelling. Their solution was to use the abundant supply of ice on Callisto, one of Jupiter's moons. A roving vehicle, incorporating a Hofmann voltameter, would electrolyse the ice, to produce hydrogen and oxygen, the components used by space rockets for fuel. Working most lunch hours for three months, the boys built a model of the vehicle, and put together a supporting PowerPoint presentation.

Electromagnetic boots:

Zoe Booth and Alex Ilsley, both 14, from Esher High School in Surrey, worked together on the design of electromagnetic boots to help astronauts (and, in the future, tourists) keep their footing in spacecraft with zero gravity. The two have been friends since meeting at the beginning of primary school nearly a decade ago. They made a working model of the sole of the boot, using a metal bar Alex found in the shed at home, copper wire and a battery from a domestic power drill. A DVD, shot and edited by them, explained their idea.