The launch of Australia’s space agency last month comes as good news to many. The agency will allow government to implement its national space strategy and act as coordinating body for Australia’s burgeoning space economy.
Many also hope that the agency will provide the impetus to engage kids in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) education in order to grow local knowledge and expertise.
At ASPI’s Building Australia’s Strategy for Space conference in June, many speakers referenced the Apollo moon landings as the single event that propelled them into a STEM career. The years since, however, have failed to match the spectacular optics of seeing a human on the moon.
These days, the best examples of the art of the possible are coming from commercial space initiatives. The sight of Elon Musk’s red Tesla roadster floating in space with David Bowie playing on the radio, and the synchronised touchdown of SpaceX’s Falcon Heavy launchers afterwards, comes to mind.
Australian schoolchildren will soon be able to witness inspirational events closer to home. These include the possibility of domestic rocket launches and Australia’s future contributions to Mars missions.
Yet engaging kids in STEM subjects is not just a matter of good optics. ADM spoke to Brett Biddington AM, head of external relationships at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC), about the Centre’s comprehensive strategy for inspiring the next generation of STEM professionals.
According to Biddington, the core of VSSEC’s strategy is the use of space as a ‘vector’, or lens, to engage kids in STEM.
“The guys who run VSSEC are expert at the science of teaching,” Biddington said. “They understand pedagogy. They’ve turned their knowledge of the science of teaching into the teaching of science.”
VSSEC’s engagement with students begins before they arrive at the Centre itself. Teachers at both primary and secondary levels are supplied with materials that integrate the day at VSSEC into the school curriculum.
“This is not a day out,” Biddington said. “For weeks beforehand, the teachers running the program are using materials VSSEC has developed and tested according to evidence-based research. When the kids come in to consolidate their classroom learning, they’re very well prepared.”
When the kids arrive at the Centre itself, they go through a hands-on experiment using purpose-built facilities, including a replica of the Martian surface for the signature Mission to Mars program.
“Students get suited up, some go onto the surface to do particular jobs, and others go into the control room,” Biddington said. “They swap roles, and then in the afternoon they analyse the samples they take from the Martian surface.
“It’s an integral element of the education experience. There are follow on lessons, planned and structured by the Centre, that teachers can pick up and use to close the unit with the results that have been discovered by the day at VSSEC.”
Although the VSSEC building (located in the grounds of Strathmore Secondary College in Melbourne) was built around the Mars simulator, the Centre also runs programs in mathematics and life sciences, all taught through the context of space.
“We run a course on pure mathematical principles based on the solar system,” Biddington told ADM. “Most kids have little concept of big numbers and big distances. The way that the teachers teach this at VSSEC is by using a big area, 15 feet in diameter, with ten radials coming out from a central point.
“They have scale images of various planets that they place along the radials to learn about scaling, estimation, and averaging – so you’re using the solar system as your vehicle, but actually you’re teaching mathematics.
“The Centre uses the vector of space science to approach STEM across the board.”
VSSEC’s presence in space education extends beyond the school classroom. The Centre also runs a professional development program for teachers known as the Victorian STEM Teacher Training Academy (ViSTTA), the capacity to teach the teachers.
“What we find is that some science and maths teachers are not confident in their teaching,” Biddington said. “ViSTTA is about
bring teachers in and putting them into programs with mentors.
“We’re also going to Bremen in Germany this year for the International Aeronautical Congress (which was held in Adelaide last year), where VSSEC teachers will conduct a professional development program for teachers from around the world. It’s through those sort of links that they have access to the ESA and NASA for imagery and resources.”
VSSEC, however, is facing the challenge of overcoming limitations set by current funding levels. Whilst the Centre was built off an initial government investment of $7 million in 2007, VSSEC’s current operations would represent an initial investment value of between $16-20 million.
“It’s not funded to do anything more than it is doing,” Biddington said. “That’s frustrating for the Centre’s management, because there’s so much more they want to do, but the resources aren’t there. So we want to take it and move it to a new horizon of capability.”
One avenue VSSEC is pursuing is a project that will see schoolchildren across the state build three CubeSats and process data, which could form the basis for academic research papers.
“The thought is to have tech schools work on the engineering element and the secondary colleges take the data and process it. There’s no reason why that data could not be written up into academic papers. You’re seeing a cross-pollination possibility there. We’re calling it VESP – Victorian Education Satellite Program.”
VSSEC’s expertise and reputation have given Victoria a widely-recognised strength in space science education. The Centre has formed partnerships with Hamilton Secondary College in Adelaide and the Powerhouse Museum in Sydney, which both use VSSEC’s model to engage students in space science. Education will undoubtedly characterise the state’s relationship with the national space agency.
Biddington also sounded a word of warning about the danger of placing high expectations on the national space agency.
“Let’s not get too excited about the space economy,” he said. “No matter what government may wish, the Australian component will grow but will always be comparatively small.
“There’ll be a great temptation to blame government for not supporting failed SMEs, and some are bound to fail. However, the bit where I think the space agency can make an enormous difference is that it can, for the first time, develop a national space narrative for Australia that pulls together the civil, military, education, and commercial dimensions.
“If we do that, we have something the entire nation can get behind.”
Note: Brett Biddington will be speaking at ADM’s STEM and Defence Summit this month in Canberra on August 21.
This article first appeared in the AUgust 2018 edition of ADM.