Our experience in the Pennines told us that a robotic telescope for education could support many tens of thousands of users because a very large proportion of users followed the programmes we had laid out and asked only for the target object. They rarely played around with the settings. Even with dozens of education projects, the total number of listed objects would still be less than a set of 20 photogenic galaxies, a set of 20 star clusters for projects looking at the life cycle of stars, a few more of the most photogenic star clusters, the planets, the Moon and whatever comet had found its way into the inner solar system.
The telescope could take all of these in less than two hours, leaving the rest of the time for servicing amateur astronomers and those in education who stepped out of the tram lines to develop their own projects. The autonomous robotic telescope has evolved into a complex system not only continuously monitoring its operation but also incorporating a considerable degree of reconfigurability required at km from its base figure 5.
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We wanted to work with the youngest children who could handle a computer and were interested in what was happening in the sky with the Sun, the Moon and the clouds and stars as well. We wanted to provide the support and answers that they rarely received in primary school. We saw this as part of the education gap that left them disenchanted with science, as reported in the Parliamentary study on the take up of science House of Lords These cameras could also be used in the Royal Society programme to follow up gamma-ray bursts looking for optical counterparts.
In the UK by , the internet was taking off with good connections planned for all schools, especially primaries. It appeared to be possible to provide our advanced educational technology to all schools and to all schoolchildren and their teachers. But, while we knew a little about teaching in secondary schools, none of us knew anything about teaching in primary schools. Here the Nuffield Foundation was very helpful, funding sabbatical science teachers to work with us to develop the projects and providing the resources to pilot the whole programme in schools to see how best to deliver it.
We set up the observatory so that every child would get a username and password to use the system whenever they had internet access from home, school or the local library. We were amazed how much they did use it from school and from home. Ease of use for teachers mattered, too.
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Every teacher had their classes set up and could control exactly what each class could do, blocking children's access to the projects allocated for future lessons and producing data on each child's progress ready for an end-of-year report. We also wanted to to see if the enthusiasm that we encountered in the classroom was limited to doing astronomy with a robot. Was it there for any web access to the real world? We showed that it was possible to deliver much more of the science curriculum online by giving learners web access to real-world facilities. By the Nuffield programme was complete and we were working with children in hundreds of schools, showing them the wonders of science and how science works.
In July we presented the telescope as an educational tool along with its supporting programmes and impact on schools to the DfE at the Houses of Parliament. We hoped that the DfE might take over the telescope and run it as a national facility, allowing us to go back to astrophysics, but that was not to be.
The days of national facilities had ended and schools were being encouraged to be their own masters. We were persuaded by the then schools minister Jim Knight to take the telescope and its programmes back to the University of Bradford and run our own programme to deliver the education to schools across the UK. DfE would help us, without funding, but with everything else that we needed in terms of support.
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We were new to education as a business, but were excited by the prospect of making a difference in science education, of developing a research programme into this form of e-learning and picking up the Drax and Moss Moran programmes to extend the delivery across the sciences. It was only after talking to the teachers that we realized that it was the enthusiasm of the pupils that was forcing the teachers into continuing with the project in more lessons. Teachers told us that the pupils were forcing them to develop their own subject knowledge, learning the science so that they could effectively deliver the lessons.
We had, in effect, found a way of delivering science continuing professional development CPD to primary-school teachers, the vast majority of whom had ceased learning science after GCSE exams at age This seemed to have a significant impact on the delivery of science in primary schools Baruch Internationally there was also a change. There was a growing interest in the knowledge economy, especially from nations that wanted to manufacture high-technology, high-value products rather than compete for the lowest wage costs. Reports from the World Bank and the UK Parliament, among others, suggested that practical science was the route into developing the innovation and creative skills that a technologically based knowledge economy would require.
For many countries practical science was a problem in the s: they did not teach it.
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Even for the UK it was difficult because there was a severe shortage of physics teachers and the many practising teachers who had helped plug the gap by taking conversion courses had limited practical science skills. The problem was so severe that in response to pressure from the new school system, the UK reduced the contribution of practical science in its science examinations.
The concern of the science education community continues; I wrote about it in March with the BRT as an example Baruch For some the answer was to robotize the laboratory with access over the web. So far the only successful delivery of systematic practical science beyond just a few experiments has been the BRT. It is obvious really: the laboratory travels over our heads every night. No other subject has such an advantage and is able to robotize the delivery of the practice, ideas and philosophy of practical science.
And the BRT had already generated practical science experiences linked to an understanding of how science works. The telescope team was invited to present its programmes in other countries.
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In China we involved the UK Association for Science Education and together found ourselves working with hundreds of schools and half-a-dozen universities, who were interested in the telescope but mainly interested in UK practical science programmes at schools and relevant degree programmes at universities. I was made honorary president of the organization, with their main event held in Guangzhou every autumn. In the UK in the University of Bradford decided that the telescope should be part of its Research and Knowledge Transfer offering, and that it should produce a business plan to cover its costs and make itself self-sustaining.
The business plan was based on an initiative that the Ogden Trust had been investigating with its partner schools. The Ogden Trust is a great supporter of physics and had been working with the telescope for several years, supporting us to work with school partnerships near Bradford and in rural schools in Derbyshire.
We were both aware of the excellent CPD delivered by working with the teacher in front of the class, but we were also aware of the considerable costs of this method of delivery.
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The Ogden Trust was interested in looking into the possibilities of using sixth-formers to go back to their old primary school, to deliver the school programme and to act as a role model, bringing more students into science. This was attributed primarily to poor science teaching by non-specialists who themselves were not excited by science or whose basic scientific knowledge was inadequate. Our proposal was to introduce the BRT to the science sixth-formers and work with the school to enable the sixth-formers to return to their old primary school to present science lessons using the robotic telescope to classes of students with their teachers present.
The model was also investigated for the lower secondary school in classes where the teachers were not physics graduates. The trials showed that this was a winner for all concerned. It delivered everything the primary schools could hope for.
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The sixth-form students loved going back to their old primary school with real relevant experience to put on their UCAS personal statement — even if they were not thinking of going into teaching. The secondary schools were delighted because the project presented their sixth-formers as excellent role models for science and for their own recruitment of students from primary schools. Primary-school teachers got CPD at a significantly reduced cost. Last but not least, the University reached sixth-formers interested in science, as a way into the normal recruitment programmes.
The international contacts we developed will also bring rewards, eventually. The schools website is partially translated into Chinese, with an offer from a Chinese practical science organization to pay for the complete translation and to run pilot programmes with Chinese schools — but China is very different from the UK and there is much to learn.
The project has generated considerable international interest for the University of Bradford, with proposals from China for degree programmes and joint research in a variety of areas. The teachers we work with are always asking for information about UK universities to pass on to parents.
On the funny side, we had put our education research and expansion programmes on the back burner while we became self-sustaining, but we were approached by the Co-operative, the largest UK sponsor of schools after churches. They were interested in using the telescope in their schools. When we talked to them, they also expressed interest in using Co-op factories and farms to deliver a much wider range of practical science in the same way we had used Drax and Moss Moran. The lead sponsor of the incipient collaboration was the chairman of the Co-operative Bank, Paul Flowers, who shortly afterwards hit the headlines for his role in yet another banking fiasco… and that was that!
Since then we have looked elsewhere to expand the scope of the science we provide to schools. We have demonstrated the robotic telescope's phenomenal potential, its impact on sustaining children's interest in science and their subsequent recruitment to science, technology, engineering and maths courses at university.
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Now we are starting a new chapter in the history of the telescope as the centrepiece of a broader science engagement project in schools. For example, we have now started looking at the data streams from the International Space Station to provide practical science experience across the science curriculum. I'd be delighted to hear from university colleagues who might be interested in working with us to deliver local programmes inspiring children with science, providing subject CPD for teachers and recruiting to their astronomy and STEM courses.
The author thanks the following: the STFC and PPARC public engagements programmes for funding and initially the PPARC grants committee for its original funding; the Ogden Trust for its funding and continued support for the outreach work; the Astra Zeneca Science Teaching Trust — now the Primary Science Teaching Trust — for its support for research into the impact and effective evaluation of the education programmes; the Royal Society and the Paul Instrument fund for their support; the Institute of Physics and the Royal Astronomical Society for financial support and encouragement.
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