Family Space Explorers

We’re always looking for new ways to engage different audiences, and this winter our Family Space Explorers project is doing just that. Funded by the UK Space Agency, we’re engaging young children and their families with space science through STEM story workshops and hands-on activities in libraries across the north east.

Why families?

As a project, we believe that one way of addressing the STEM skills shortage is through long-term interventions. We want STEM conversations happening at home, amongst young families, so that when children later come to make career-critical subject choices they already have a wealth of experience and family support to guide their decisions. The Family Space Explorers workshops are aimed at children aged 2-5, along with their families. They’re carefully planned to help parents and carers build their confidence in exploring science and engineering topics with their child.

Why libraries?

Most of NUSTEM’s work is delivered via our partner schools, which are drawn from the local area. For some families, entering a school can itself be a barrier to engagement. Working in local libraries and community centres (along with schools!), in areas of higher socio-economic deprivation, we hope to reach a greater number and variety of families.

The Workshops

We’ve developed two workshops, each with activities linked to books for young children. The sessions are each 45 minutes long and involve shared reading and activities. At the end of each session, participants get to keep a copy of the book, so they can continue the reading and activities at home.

Choosing the stories was difficult. We aim to embed diversity and equality throughout our work, and it was tricky to find stories that had strong female lead characters. In book after book we found male characters (children and adults) heading into space… with very little representation from female characters.

We chose “Goodnight Spaceman” because of its charming story and strong links to the UK Space Agency. We also wrote our own book, “Are we nearly there yet?” to explore space exploration through non-fiction, which allowed us to cast a female lead character in the shape of a robot explorer. We also put together a list of other good STEM stories, which you can find at our Family Space Explorers page.

Linking activities

It’s important that our workshops can be repeatable by families at home – we want the interventions to continue beyond the end of the workshop. In the workshops, families use Duplo to build their own version of a space rocket to travel to the International Space Station, and a rover to explore the surface of Mars. The simplicity of the activities enable parents to continue constructive play at home, and to adopt similar approaches with other stories.

Supporting local schools

We’re sending a copy of our book to schools across the region, and inviting teachers and educators who work with young children to attend our two free training sessions. These sessions will equip teachers to deliver the sessions in their own schools.

How to get involved

We have a number of sessions booked into our calendar over the next few months. If you have children aged 2-5 and you’d like to attend, click here to view upcoming sessions and find details of how to book onto the events.

Astronauts, sports scholarships, the web, deforestation, and the power of unexpected connections

Here’s a delightful little story from web developer Sarah Mei, posted on Twitter. It starts out being about American university sports scholarships, but heads off in directions you’re really not going to expect.

We all assume, when we’re in school, that we’re going to have ‘a career’, that it’s going to make sense, and that we can map out roughly how it’s going to go. For some people that’s absolutely true, but for many (most?) of us, our lives take twists and turns we’d never have predicted. Some of us rather like it that way, even if we don’t have stories quite as good as this.

Tip of the hat to Elin Roberts for the link.

It’s 2017, the year the Sun goes out

Happy New Year! We hope you’re still flattened under the burden of gifts and groaning with the tonnage of mince pies you’ve consumed, but let’s get straight to the important stuff: this year, the Sun is going dark. August 21st 2017, mark our words.

Sorry, what’s that? Oh, you’ve heard of total solar eclipses, have you? Drat.

OK, so:

That last point is quite impressive, when you think about it. And it’s the subject of the NASA video posted above, which is even more impressive than you might expect. It doesn’t just show the ground track, it factors in (as the video explains) the effects of the angle of the Sun, the elevation of the observer at each point, and the bumpiness of the moon’s surface. The combined result is that the shadow of the sun isn’t elliptical as you might expect, but more… well, watch the film and see.

The next total solar eclipse visible from the UK mainland won’t be until 23rd September 2090. There’ll be a pretty good partial eclipse in 2026, but having seen both partial and total eclipses I can personally vouch that there’s no comparison to witnessing totality. If you ever have the chance to travel to see one, absolutely take it. It’s a (literally) phenomenal experience. You might remember the partial solar eclipse of 2015, which looked like this:

…but seriously, that was nothing like as impressive as a total eclipse.

Come to think of it, I have a friend in Boise, Idaho…

More information: List of solar eclipses visible from the UK; NASA’s site about the 2017 US eclipse.


Win a Free Astronomy Trip to the Alps

The European Southern Observatory is organising an Astronomy Camp at the beautiful (if awkwardly-named) Astronomical Observatory of the Autonomous Region of the Aosta Valley, in the Italian Alps. It’s pictured above, and sounds like an impressive place to hang out for a week of lectures, hands-on activities, observing sessions… and winter sports and excursions. Here are the details:

  • 26th December 2016 to 1st January 2017
  • Open to students aged 16-18 years (ie. born 1998, 99, 2000).
  • Working language: English
  • Camp fee: €500… but read on!

How to apply

The camp is open to maximum 56 secondary school students from a list of countries including the ESO Member States (which includes the UK). There are more details and a web form on the Camp web page, and you’ll also need to submit a video. Your film should be in English, last no longer than three minutes, and be on the theme: “I would most like to discover/invent …… because……..”.

Submission deadline: 4th October 2016.

The applicant with the best entry from one of ESO’s Member States will win an ESO bursary to cover the complete cost. In the UK, the Royal Astronomical Society will also contribute to costs for the country’s best entries.

This sounds like one of those things you never quite dream you could win, but somebody has to, and for those who do it could be a life-changing experience. The full programme (on the camp website) looks jam-packed, exhausting, and huge fun. Get your application in, and please please let us know if you’re one of the 56 students. Send us a postcard, at least!

Heading image: ESO/V. Vicenzi.

View the transit of Mercury on 9th May

This May will provide us with a fantastic opportunity to observe a transit of Mercury. It should be possible to view the eclipse from your school or home, but we will need to keep our fingers crossed for good weather.

What’s a transit of Mercury?

Like a solar eclipse, when the Moon obscures the Sun, a transit occurs when Mercury or Mars (the only planets between us and the Sun) partially block the view of the Sun from the Earth. A transit is much rarer than a solar eclipse. A solar eclipse may occur a few times a year, while transits of Mercury occur between 3.5 and 13 years apart, and transits of Venus come along only every century or so.

The next transit of Mercury will start just after midday on 9th May and will finish at around 7:40pm

How to observe the transit safely

The best way to observe in a group is to project an image of the Sun onto a shaded white surface using a telescope. CLEAPPS Guidance leaflet provides excellent information about how you can set this up:

However if you do not have a telescope, or the weather is poor on the day, live streams of the transit will be available on the internet.  ESA will be providing one and the link will be provided on their website closer to the event.


Never look directly at the sun!

You could permanently damage your eyesight



The Royal Astronomical Society have produced a teachers activity pack (PDF link) which contains a range of different worksheets and activity suggestions for use with primary and secondary students. The pack also supports literacy and numeracy, and features Mercury-themed cupcake investigations.

You could ask pupils to compare the size of Mercury and the Sun. They could do this by looking at the diameter of the two objects, the area of the disc, or their volume. Which approach gives the best idea of the relative scale of the two? NASA has created a solar system explorer website that will help students investigate further.



Kielder Observatory trip – 26th February

Another month, another four schools, another 30 students; we seem to be making a habit of trucking people up to the Kielder Observatory. No snow this time, so our intrepid driver Steve bounced us up the track, and we managed to get some good observing in before the high cloud closed over. Luke from the Observatory then gave us a joyous romp through the exciting bits of astronomy and cosmology (absorption spectra! Woo! — no, really, I did go a bit giddy about absorption spectra), and all too soon we were back on the coach heading home.

The thin cloud layer and absent moon made for a relatively lousy night for photography, so there aren’t many shots:

Here’s Becki welcoming us to the Observatory, as we huddle in the one vaguely-warm part of the site and get properly dark-adapted:

Luke’s observing station, with 3- and 5-inch refractors set up and ready to go:

…and a group observing from that station, a few minutes later:

The 16” Reflector was in use. Here it is slewing across the sky while my shutter was open:

…and here’s an arty shot of the housing. The smudge of stars left of centre is – if I’m not mistaken – the Pleiades cluster.

Finally, my best shot of the night: Becki’s observing group out on the deck, with Orion directly above the telescope. Top left of Orion is Betelgeuse, looking much more red than Rigel, down the bottom-right of the constellation.

As ever, it’s quite a trek out to the Observatory (as Becki put it: Kielder is the most remote village in England, so the Observatory is outside the most remote village), but it’s well worth it, particularly if you’re lucky with the weather. Keep an eye on Kielder’s Events page (or this handy availability checker) and book yourself into a session!

Big thanks to the Observatory staff, and we’ll hope to be back again soon.

Gravitational waves – The Think Physics Guide

As a project with ‘Physics’ in our title, it hardly seems possible not to be talking about gravitational waves in the office this morning. We read the reports avidly, we got all excited, and we also realised that we’re hardly the experts on this. So here’s our brief run-down of the really useful stuff we’ve found from better journalists than ourselves and more informed cosmologists:

First up, an excellent film from the New York Times, which sets out what the LIGO experiment in Louisiana and Washington has done:

The rest of the Times’ report is a good solid overview of what’s happened. Through the arms-length reporting you can glimpse the level of excitement and the significance of the work.

If animation is more your style, this primer from PhD Comics will spin you through the bumpy landscape of gravitational waves:

Hooked? Fascinated? Excited? The New Yorker has an outstanding long article about the inside story of the discovery:

“Space and time became distorted, like water at a rolling boil. In the fraction of a second that it took for the black holes to finally merge, they radiated a hundred times more energy than all the stars in the universe combined. They formed a new black hole…

The waves rippled outward in every direction, weakening as they went. On Earth, dinosaurs arose, evolved, and went extinct. The waves kept going. About fifty thousand years ago, they entered our own Milky Way galaxy, just as Homo sapiens were beginning to replace our Neanderthal cousins as the planet’s dominant species of ape. A hundred years ago, Albert Einstein, one of the more advanced members of the species, predicted the waves’ existence, inspiring decades of speculation and fruitless searching.”

It’s a beautifully-written piece, and it really captures the human aspect of this – of hundreds of physicists around the world experiencing that moment of discovery. It’s an image that’s ingrained in popular conceptions of how science works, of Archimedes leaping out of his bathtub and exclaiming ‘Eureka!’ The reality, of course, is usually very different. Science tends to proceed in small steps, miniature breakthroughs in labs and desks and computers around the world, inching forwards piece by piece. But the LIGO work appears to be a genuine breakthrough, and the excitement is both real and hard-earned.

That’s also the theme of yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 Inside Science Special:

“It is the cleanest signal you can imagine… you have to feel fantastic for those 800 scientists, who have been spending – some of them – decades of their careers working towards this first detection.”
— Dr. Andrew Pontzen, UCL

The programme also hears from the leading UK scientist on the project, Prof. Sheila Rowan of the University of Glasgow. You can get a good sense of how giddy everyone is about this by listening to her impression of the signal ‘chirp.’

Do take a look at the LIGO experiment website, but for now, the final words:

Kielder Observatory trip – Friday 15th January

On Friday we took a group of about 30 students from four different schools up to Kielder Observatory. Yes, there was snow. Yes, it was cold. But, oh my, was it glorious.

Here’s a photo story of the evening, with captions and everything. Enjoy – and I very much look forward to my next trip up.

Huge thanks to the tremendously professional Observatory staff for wrangling a bunch of us through the maximum possible observing time. This was my first visit, and I was hugely impressed with how slickly-run the whole thing is. We’re heading back with another school group next month, but if you’d like to visit yourself keep an eye on Kielder’s Events page (or this handy availability checker) and book yourself into a session. It’s always a gamble with the weather, but if you’re lucky, as we were, the views are magnificent – and all the better for the expert guides who’ll show you around the universe.

The drive up takes about 90 minutes, give or take faffing about with Land-Rovers for the final stretch if the track is snowy or muddy. So it’s quite an expedition for an evening, but well worth it. Our group were buzzing all the way back, which is always lovely to hear.

Good luck Tim!

Tim Peake standup

The giant Tim picture you can print and cut out. This and header image: courtesy UK Space Agency.

When the clock reaches zero, an enormous great rocket should blast off from Kazakhstan, launching the UK’s first male astronaut into orbit. Tim Peake’s Principia mission aboard the International Space Station is a big deal, as you might have noticed from the vast media coverage.

Watch the launch live on BBC1 with Dara O’Brien and Brian Cox, with Dallas Campbell reporting from Baikonur Cosmodrome, and find out more at the Principia mission website. They’ve a terrific range of materials, including a poster PDF to print and (our favourite) a giant photo of Tim you can print out life-size, mount on cardboard, and leave standing around. Or carry with you on the bus, or something.

They also have information about the experiments Tim will be undertaking during his mission, activity packs and other ways to get involved, and a range of space careers information (click ‘Download resources’ and scroll down).

Good luck, Tim! We’ll be watching.

Last Week, in Think Physics…

[you’ll have to imagine one of us reading this first line with some dramatic music playing in the background]

Previously, in Think Physics…

ESTEC space capsule-1650

Something suitably spacey-looking from Joe’s trip to ESTEC, as part of the UNAWE meeting.

Joe was in The Netherlands last week for the UNAWE Workshops – a worldwide primary space education conference. Hosted at Leiden University, with delegates from more than 25 countries, he reports excellent lunches and some useful ideas. We’ll twist his arm to write something more extensive soon.

Less internationally, I was at an Enterprising Science workshop in London, hosted by the Science Museum and King’s College. Lots of useful nuggets and discussions, and a trip around the utterly fabulous new Cosmonauts exhibition. I may have geeked out just a little over the Soviet-era LK-3 lunar lander that’s on display. Sadly, no photography allowed.

Back home in Newcastle, we’ve now held the first two sessions of our sell-out Royal Institution Engineering Masterclasses:

…and we had an excellent turn-out for the first of our Physics Matters! lecture series:

Free tickets are still available for the rest of the series – starting with Biophysics this Thursday evening.

Speaking of events, don’t miss our calendar – we’ve been adding loads of stuff to it. Upcoming highlights include our A-level Physics teachers’ network meeting on 18th November, astronaut Chris Hadfield at the Centre for Life a few days earlier, and Edinburgh Fringe sensation Festival of the Spoken Nerd at Northern Stage on 30th October.

Otherwise, we’ve been fielding calls and requests and meetings with loads of our partner schools, nailing down the details of what we’re going to be up to for the rest of the year. It’s busy!

A cake, this afternoon.

A cake, this afternoon.

Finally, and of critical importance, this week has started fantastically well: project director Carol brought in a cake.

[back to the dramatic voiceover]

And now, Think Physics continues…


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