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“Canned Inspiration:” Encouraging Space Skills

On a windy April day in England, a team of 17-year-old students from Allestree Woodlands School in Derby awaited the 20 second launch forming the climax of their six-month engineering project to launch a “CanSat.”

Since October 2018, students from 21 countries across Europe, Canada, and Japan have been preparing for the annual European Space Agency (ESA) CanSat competition. CanSat is an ESA STEM competition where teams of students work to design and build a satellite within the volume and dimensions of a soft-drink can.

The satellites are lifted to around 120 meters (m) using a modified weather-balloon or drone. Then, falling under a parachute designed and built by the team, temperature and pressure readings are transmitted via radio to a laptop ground-station. Each team determines their own secondary mission which could include features such as advanced telemetry, guided landing and impact protection.

The Allestree team watched their parachute successfully deploy and monitored the sensor data displayed on the laptop. The parachute and impact protection system returned their CanSat safely to the ground and data was transmitted to the ground station.

Not only was the students’ mission a success but, out of the 10 U.K. teams competing, the Allestree team were announced as the winners. The team will represent the U.K. at the European Competition in Italy in June 2019.

STEM and Space Technology Skills Development

Allestree have been represented at the CanSat competition for the last five years and crowned U.K. Champions in 2018 and 2019. Participating student, Tom Barton, enthuses that, “the CanSat competition allowed us to get a feel for the challenges we may face if we decide to enter the space industry. CanSat got many students involved in STEM activities. We’ve gained insight into project planning, report writing and presenting — all invaluable skills.”

Each team combined their STEM skills to conceptualise, design, implement, test, and launch their CanSat. They developed software skills to control the sensors and micro-processors; electronics capabilities to construct robust modular systems; 3D printing prowess in printing screw-threads and parabolic nose cones; and mathematical methods to implement parachute design equations.

The students also gained rare and valuable insights from engaging in a high-level full-engineering project while at school; and learnt to innovate practically.

Student Innovation

Although innovation is frequently praised, it is rarely fostered in students. STEM and STEAM (STEM plus Art, in recognition of the importance of creative design) activities benefit from schools encouraging creativity while generating opportunities for students to explore innovation.

The confidence to create, experiment, and innovate needs to be encouraged by schools and continued during the curriculum.

Such confidence can come from inspirational teachers – “putting old heads on young shoulders.” The inspiration of pupils cannot be underestimated. The students in Allestree owe much to Greg Duffy, Assistant Headmaster, whose enthusiasm is insatiable. Duffy comments, “It’s a great privilege to mentor our students as they grapple with the challenges of conceptualising, designing, building, testing and launching their CanSat. Supporting them as they grow in confidence and skill throughout the project is a true pleasure. Their passion, ingenuity, resilience and teamwork are an inspiration to us all. As we develop our Space Curriculum, in collaboration with partner Primary Schools, we hope to inspire more students to engage with ‘STEAM’ and reach for the stars!”

I presented to children at Prospect House, a junior school in south-west London, recently on rockets and launchers. Physics and maths were applied to launching water rockets with the help of Adam Baker from U.K. Launch Services. Deborah Lane, deputy head and enthusiastic math teacher added, “The pupils were truly enthralled by the morning’s presentation and leapt enthusiastically to create the furthest travelling water rocket with the straightest trajectory. The designs were genuinely innovative, all based on their own imaginations and what they had gleaned from the morning. It wouldn’t surprise me if many of these pupils went on to become designers and engineers. The power of a single session cannot be underestimated.”

The U.K. National Space Academy has mastered the art of inspiring students to pursue STEM careers into industry. Its unique model allows students to participate in engaging science masterclasses led by outstanding teachers, bringing curriculum topics to life. Its programs have been increasingly sought after internationally and in the UK. Kierann Shah, the Academy’s general manager, notes that awareness of the space sector or the skills needed for STEM careers cannot be taken for granted in school. “Many people have the misconception that space is out of reach, that it’s just about astronauts and human exploration and you can’t get involved unless you work for NASA,” she says. “This is why we make sure we can talk to young people and teachers about real life practical applications of space, and the huge variety of careers related to space. We do this through our careers conferences, where students get the chance to meet space scientists and engineers, and in our full time post-16 ‘Space Engineering’ course that we co-deliver with Loughborough College.”

The Academy’s director, Anu Ojha, takes this idea that skills are the key even further. “We know that the kind of careers that young people will have in the future will be subject to change as technology develops, so whilst it is important for them to develop their knowledge base, it is also important to focus on developing skills, and giving young people the language to describe the skills that they already have,” he says. “A subject like physics, if taught well, can develop students’ critical thinking and analytical skills as well as their ability to conceptualise and solve problems – skills that are vital for the future of space and wider STEM industries, and are widely applicable elsewhere. From the students’ perspective, it increases their employability, from the sector’s point of view, it increases the talent pool. Supporting STEM education and skills development is a win-win in my opinion.”

Structuring Skills Training Linked to Industry Needs

The U.K. space industry has identified a need for nearly 100 thousand new staff over the next decade to support its current industry and strong growth ambitions.

Ensuring that staff have appropriate skills to support current programmes, train new entrants to the sector and inspire the next generation of engineers, scientists and managers is a focus of the U.K. Space Agency (UKSA) through its education programs, skills, and outreach strategy.

Industry reports difficulties recruiting across the STEM field, especially in computing, Artificial Intelligence (AI), and handling data. The industry also values non-technical skills such as team-working and communicating. The UKSA therefore supports student activities and resources for teachers using Mars rovers, Raspberry Pi computers, and Earth Observation (EO) data. These are available free to teachers through the Space Education Office, ESERO-UK (part of the National STEM Center), which runs the U.K. CanSat competition on behalf of ESA.

Young entrepreneurs are encouraged to participate in the national SatelLife competition for ideas to use space in terrestrial applications. The 2019 competition winner was Lowena Hull, 17, an A-level student from Portsmouth with an idea to track abandoned supermarket trolleys.

Industry also reports problems with recruiting graduates with sufficient experience of working in the sector. The UKSA’s Space Placements in Industry (SPIN) scheme helps by giving undergraduates two months of paid work on space projects with a sector employer.

The CanSat project has a direct impact on career opportunities and further skills training. Three of the 2018 CanSat team have secured apprenticeships at Rolls Royce.

Daisy, a CanSat 2018 Champion team member, says, “CanSat gave me an insight into working in engineering. The excitement we felt as a team when we overcame challenges and the support we gave each other showed how important team work is. This challenge taught me valuable team working skills. Tasks such as presentations and data analysis helped prepare me for working in engineering.”

Daisy is currently studying Physics with Astrophysics at the University of Leeds and hopes to work on satellites or space probes in the future.

Skills + Training = Economic Growth

I have written before that it is an increasingly competitive state environment to attract space companies. Access to finance and an enabling regulatory regime are both vital — but so is the ability to hire people with appropriate skills. Successful skills generation starts by inspiring the young in primary school.

It is that understanding of the journey from STEM activities in primary school through to industry that is vital for the development of industry required skills that can translate into economic growth. VS