Select Committee on Science and Technology Written Evidence

Memorandum 86

Submission from Professor Alan Wells, Leverhulme Emeritus Fellow, University of Leicester and Non-Executive Director, National Space Centre



  The University of Leicester and the National Space Centre, together, support a distinctive involvement in space education and skills creation deriving from the University's extensive and long running space research programme. There has been a Leicester-built instrument operating on an orbital spacecraft in every calendar year since 1967. Currently, five operational satellites are carrying instruments or software built in the University's Space Research Centre and these support a wide range of scientific research and outreach projects in high energy astrophysics and earth climate studies. The Beagle 2 Lander Operations Control Centre was designed and developed by a Space Research Centre team and housed, for public information and outreach purposes, in the National Space Centre, public access commencing with the launch of Mars Express in June 2003 and continuing for six months until the declared termination of the (unsuccessful) Beagle 2 search and recovery operation. Visitor numbers at the National Space Centre increased by 15% over that period.

  The University's Department of Physics and Astronomy initiated the first undergraduate course in the UK in Physics with Space Science and Technology in 1991, complementing the earlier successful Physics with Astrophysics course. Many of its graduates and post-graduates have since progressed to space related employment, in research, industry, education and policy.

   The University is a founding partner of the £60 million National Space Centre (NSC), which was developed from the University's founding proposal to the Millennium Commission. (Wells and Ponter, 1995). The University has run the UK Space School for over a decade, most recently in partnership with the National Space Centre.

   The report to BNSC on space education (Barstow, 2005) reflects the prominent role of Leicester scientists in migrating space and astronomy themes into outreach programmes for schools, regionally and nationally, both through Departmental programmes and in conjunction with the National Space Centre.


  The UK Government's Science & Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14 (2006) highlights the growing skills shortage in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM): a gap that is increasing as demand rises from business coupled with a decrease in interest from students choosing their A-level and degree options.

  A contemporary role for space science in education and outreach was reviewed at the First Appleton Space Conference. (Wells, 2005) The main findings were:

    —  Students in the age group 7-14 are receptive, curious and inspired by space-related educational experiences such as are encountered at science visitor centres. Providing for this age group is rewarding and is done well at the National Space Centre and elsewhere. The National Space Centre supports over 50,000 school visitors annually in its education programmes. Studies have shown that positive changes in attitudes towards science are retained by over half of the participants, for months after a well organised school education visit to the National Space Centre (Jarvis & Pell, 2002).

    —  Many students turn away from physical sciences between the ages of 14 and 18. A-level entries in physics are in steady decline nationally, dropping from 33,200 in 1997 to 27,400 in 2006 (IOP, 2007).

    —  Poor quality of physics teaching is identified as a core problem (Smithers & Robinson, 2005). Only 1/3 of GCSE science students in state schools are taught by a graduate physics teacher. Teachers of physics, especially those not trained in physics, are in dire need of help if they are to reverse the decline in A-level entrants. (IOP, 2005).

    —  Regional Science Learning Centres have been set up to help develop and sustain core skills for science teachers. Space features in the East Midlands Regional Science Learning Centre Network.

  Undergraduate in-take in the physical sciences has declined nationally for the past decade. Space Science and Astrophysics in-take at Leicester and other Universities with space and astronomy based courses counter the national trend. (By 2005 astronomy graduates accounted for 10% of the total physics-based output of around 2500 graduates. Also, see figure below).

    —  STEM graduate output from the universities feeds the wider science-trained workforce, including the space industry and the teaching profession. The aerospace industry workforce is aging and declining in size in the UK, Europe and the US. 30% of all physics teachers will reach retirement age in the next 10 years.


  The US Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) Commission on the future of the US aerospace industry (2003) lobbied Congress on the short- and long-term workforce needs of the industry. The report noted the high average age of the NASA workforce with 32% retiring within five years, and the decline in R&D scientist and engineer employment in the aerospace industry from 90,000 in 1990 to 20,000 a decade later. It recommended "reversal of the decline in, and promotion of growth of, a scientifically and technologically trained US aerospace workforce; steps to address the failure of math, science and technology education in America; investment in vocational skills needed by industry; and substantive long-term investment in education and training at the undergraduate and graduate levels with major emphasis on mathematics and the sciences."

  The Augustine Report, (2005) commissioned by the National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering and Institute of Medicine and prepared by a committee drawn from leaders of US industry, academe and government (including three Nobel Prize winners), asserts that 85% of measured growth in US income per capita can be attributed to technological change. The report calls for actions, inter-alia, "to increase America's talent pool by vastly improving K-12 science and mathematics education (10,000 Teachers, 10 Million Minds)".

  NASA's budget of $153.3 million in FY 2007 for education and outreach is targeted at "A lack of public understanding of scientific enquiry, a retiring aerospace force, and job recruitment competition for those with science and engineering degrees placing future advancements in science, aeronautics and space exploration at risk". The budget funds school and teacher training initiatives run by NASA as well as "Space Grants" to each State in the Union. State Universities often work collaboratively with state and district schools in joint education projects.


  For the past five years the National Space Centre's education and outreach programme has been focussed mainly on the KS two to three age group, see Table below. Provision for students at GCSE, A level and undergraduate levels has been at a much lower level.

School Visits
KS 2-3
Total students/Teachers


  In 2006, with support from the East Midlands Development Agency (EMDA) and the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the National Space Centre began development of a new space-themed education programme for KS 4 (age 14-16) adapted to GCSE syllabus and a more advanced programme, including career development themes, for KS 5 (age 16-19) students. Called "Careers Pathways and Workforce Development," the programme uses inspirational examples from space in physics and maths courses, aiming to encourage students towards a science-based education and promoting science based careers in higher education and industry. It delivers:

    —  Space-themed syllabus material.

    —  Teacher/researcher input to development of syllabus material and workshop content.

    —  Pilot education workshops and projects.

    —  Teacher Inset training.

    —  Annual Careers Fairs.

  Delivery will be through innovative digital media presentations and provision of training aids and syllabus material, with active support and training to help teachers to use the material effectively. Web-based distance learning and video conferencing will be used to complement school visits and enable more distant schools to participate.

  These programmes, suitably tailored, will be delivered into vocational courses in FE colleges as well as A-level students in 6th forms. This objective specifically addresses concerns expressed in EMDA's Regional Economic Strategy that: "the East Midlands is the lowest of all regions in the proportion of its workforce with degrees in science and engineering subjects—identified as a key factor in facilitating innovation within sectors and individual firms".

  A pilot Career Fair in October 2006 attracted 130 students and 10 exhibitors from space and other high-tech companies and universities. The first pilot education workshop for 6th form and FE students from East Midlands colleges will take place in April 2007.


  Space activities in the East Midlands already have a major impact on education, training and scientific research at the national level.

  The Universities of Leicester and Nottingham are major innovators in the front line of space research and development. The University of Leicester has its internationally recognised programmes in space science, earth observation and planetary exploration. The University of Nottingham is the leading research centre in the UK for advanced applications of GPS technology and a major UK player in the Galileo mission. Both Universities run highly successful undergraduate and post-graduate training programmes in which space is a strong feature and whose graduate outputs contribute substantially to the science-trained workforce of the nation. Both universities have outreach programmes and showcase their space research activities at the National Space Centre.

  Experience at the National Space Centre, in common with other science centres, is that space education inspires interest and contributes to scientific skills among the young where other branches of education fail to motivate. This observation applies mainly to younger age science centre school visitors up to KS-3. Evidence supporting this view is mainly anecdotal (Spencer & Hulbert, 2006) but, exceptionally, the Leicester-based study (Jarvis and Pell, 2002) provides quantitative support for the argument.

  Training and motivation of science teachers is recognised as a major reason for poor retention of STEM in GCSE students and the continuing decline in A-level physics entries. The additional training and support provided to teachers through National Space Centre INSET and other teacher support programmes is well regarded. The East Midlands Regional Science Learning Centre Network uses space material in its teacher training programmes. There is good cooperation and consultation between the National Space Centre, the Regional Science Learning Centre, and other educational stakeholders that helps support the delivery of these programmes.

  The National Space Centre's Careers Pathways and Workforce Development project is a novel initiative aimed at providing a much needed bridge in space education between Secondary Schools and Higher and Further Education. The approach is concentrating on physical sciences in the present pilot stage and will test out a new approach to the problem of declining interesting in science and maths among students at GCSE level and beyond. The career development element will link it to university undergraduate recruitment and technical training for industry.

  Taken together, the National Space Centre, the two universities and the Regional Science Learning Centre represents a cluster of science education capabilities and a centre of excellence with the potential to provide a powerful resource centred on the theme of Space in Science Education. No formal structure yet exists to coordinate these activities. Coordination is hampered by the fact that the various activities are funded from many different sources, with each funding agency having differing priorities. (Ref: the submission by Mr Chas Bishop detailing the dependence of the National Space Centre's education programmes on one-off grants, sponsorship and cross subsidy.)


  We suggest that, with sustained funding, the cluster of space education capabilities in the East Midlands described above, could deliver a coordinated space education effort that would have substantial national benefit in the wider context of science education and training. There is the potential to provide a continuum of space related education over the whole age range from primary to PhD, and beyond into the workforce. Indicators at the lower and upper levels of the age range (National Space Centre at KS 2-3 and university graduate output) already show positive results. "Careers Pathways" and an increasing involvement of the Regional Science Learning Centre have the potential to plug the gap at GCSE and A-level, for the benefit of students and their teachers.

  The concept of a regional centre of excellence for Space in Science Education could be built around the existing infrastructure involving the Universities, the Regional Science Learning Centre and other potential stakeholders, with the National Space Centre is the bridging partner. A similar structure, perhaps not as comprehensive, has been in place in Scotland since 2002, funded by the Scottish Executive currently at around £300K pa. Populations of Scotland (~5M) and the East Midlands region (~4M), and the associated educational requirements, are similar.

  We recommend to the Select Committee the concept of regional clusters of science education based around existing centres of excellence in science and education. This concept is well advanced in the East Midlands around the theme of Space in Science Education and we wish to advance a proposal to establish a pilot scheme in Leicester. The pilot programme could be established by 2008 if sustained with coordinated funded, preferably from a single source, of around £300K pa. Eventually, roll-out on a national basis throughout the nine English regions would require an annual expenditure of around £2.7 million.

REFERENCES     1.  Wells A and Ponter A. A National Space Science Centre to celebrate the new Millennium. University of Leicester proposal to the Millennium Commission, 1995.

    2.  Barstow M, Bringing Space into School Science. Report to BNSC. 2005.

    3.  Science & Innovation Investment Framework 2004-14: Next steps. HMSO, 2006.

    4.  Wells A, 2005. Public Awareness of Britain's Space Science Programme; the role of Education and Outreach. Space Conference/Wells.pdf

    5.  Jarvis T and Pell A, 2002. Journal of Research on Science Teaching, Vol 39, 979.

    6.  Institute of Physics, 2007.

    7.  Institute of Physics Press Release., 2005.

    8.  Smithers A and Robinson P, 2005. Centre for Education and Employment Research, University of Buckingham.

    9.  Spencer P and Hulbert G, 2006, The Education and Skills Case for Space. BNSC, EADS Astrium, PPARC and Yorkshire Forward.

  10.  AIA Commission Aerospace Industries Association (AIA) Commission on the Future of the US Aerospace Industry (2003).

  11.  "Rising Above the Gathering Storm: Energising and employing America for a brighter economic future". November 2005. National Academy of Sciences, National Academy of Engineering, Institute of Medecine of the National Academies.

January 2007

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