segunda-feira, 23 de novembro de 2015

Space exploration in the classrooms


Muitos parabéns ao Manuel Paiva (na imagem) pelo merecidissimo grande prémio Ciencia Viva que logo vai receber. Divulgo o texto que apresentou na recente homenagem a Mariano Gago

Space exploration in the classrooms

(SCIENCE Today and Knowledge as Our Common Future. International Conference in Honour of José Mariano Gago: Session 4 – EDUCATION and CULTURE: New Challenges Towards “Science for All”. Lisbon, November 20, 2015)

Space exploration is a common subject within and outside Portuguese classrooms. On several occasions, young Portuguese pupils and students came to this “Pavilion of Knowledge”, to be in direct contact with ESA astronauts in the International Space Station. Many other educational activities took place since Portugal became an ESA member in November 2000. José Mariano Gago was then the Portuguese Minister of Science and Technology and Jean-Jacques Dordain the ESA Director General.

However, already in 1995, the year Mariano Gago became Minister, he initiated negotiations with the European Space Agency and many young Portuguese, mainly engineers, benefited from training at ESTEC, the European Space Research and Technology Centre in the Netherlands. When they returned to Portugal, they were at the heart of its emerging space industry. When we celebrated, in this Pavilion, the ten’s anniversary of Portuguese membership at ESA, Mariano Gago pointed out, I quote: “we are going through a very stimulating moment, with a permanent increase of the link between industry, the scientific community, and the space sector”. And he was right: today, Portugal counts about 20 companies, and almost the same number of research institutes with space activities. But this is not the topic of my talk: I would like to show, that bringing space exploration into the classrooms, is an excellent tool to inspire young people for scientific careers and, in line with Gago’s philosophy, “to fight scientific illiteracy, and to interest the general public for science”.

We have with us several experts on education and I hope they agree that we should introduce science as soon as possible, already in the nursery schools. I had in this pavilion a unique experience with pupils from a first year primary school. The topic was “how are the stars born?”, and when José Mariano Gago got to know of this pedagogical experience, he decided to come incognito and took a chair on the last row. In fact, he just applied one of his principles, I quote: “science education, is not only part of the responsibility of the ministry in charge of education. It is part of any ministry in charge of research, of science and technology”.

A very original project is “Ciência Viva School” or “Escola Ciência Viva”, created by Rosalia Vargas: last year, pupils of the first four years of primary school, from 46 different schools, spent one week at the “Pavilion of Knowledge” with their teachers, for one hands-on week, and a direct contact with a scientist. One year ago, I was that scientist when Philae landed on a comet. It was an ideal opportunity to give real insight into the difference between weight and mass. I could explain that Philae weighted 100 kg on Earth, but only one gram on the comet, while, obviously, keeping the same mass. This was the reason for its bumping landing. Then, I repeated an experience carried out few months earlier together with Carlos Fiolhais, who is well known from most of you. The question was: what would be the shape of a candle flame in the International Space Station? After one hour of answering the questions from 10 years hold pupils, one of them finally got the solution, a very surprising one for those not familiar with microgravity. I will not give you the answer today, to leave intact your own pleasure when you find it.

On the sites of ESA and NASA, plenty of educational projects can be found for pupils of all ages up to university students. Today, I will focus on a competition called CanSat, because it has a great success in Portugal, thanks again to Ciência Viva and to Ana Noronha. It is indeed Ana who was at the origin of the space educational projects in Portugal. The name CanSat comes from can, a soft drink can, and Sat from satellite. The can is a real 33 centiliters can. The satellite is a simulation of a satellite, because the launching rocket reaches the height of 1000 meters only. The participants of this competition were high school students. Their mission was to propose a project requiring measurements from sensors to install in the can. Their teachers spent a few days at ESTEC, where they received training and a kit with temperature and pressure sensors, and a radio transmitter. Each team had to build its own parachute to safely bring back the can on the ground. The descending velocity should be controlled, and the transmitted data recorded during the descent. Moreover, they were expected to propose and realize something original. For example, several teams equipped the CanSats with a GPS that measured position as a function of time. Even those of you who don’t have a scientific background may remember that the derivative of the position in respect to time is the velocity, and the derivative of the velocity the acceleration. You probably learned this in an abstract way, by doing some mathematics on a blackboard. Here, the students were watching the CanSat descending with its parachute and, simultaneously, the computer screen may show 3D graphs of position, velocity and acceleration. It is hands-on calculus, telecom and informatics.

This year, 40 Portuguese schools took part in the competition, and after a first selection, 15 were invited for two days of intensive work at the Santa Cruz airfield, 60 km north of Lisbon. The winners were from the “Escola Básica e Secundária de Santa Maria”, in the Azores. The idea was to use the CanSat as a relay to enable the transmission of a SOS message, that otherwise could not reach a rescue team. The jury evaluated not only the innovative aspects of the projects and their technical achievements, but also their educational value, the team work, the quality of the presentations, in English, and the outreach, that includes communication to the media. It is not difficult to guess, that the ESA tracking station on the small island of Santa Maria, was a source of inspiration for the students and their enthusiastic physics teacher. This requires a lot of work for the teachers, who have to learn new digital techniques and transmit them to the students, who were born in a digital world. It is an example of life long learning. For the students, instead of only learn how to do, they also learn by doing. Finally, this project requires an interdisciplinary approach, which is a key for innovation. This year, the European final took place end of June in Portugal, on the same airfield, with 16 teams from 14 countries. I think that those who participated, went home with the feeling that we are indeed moving towards a knowledge-based society.

Two or three years from now, some of the students who built the CanSats will build real satellites, as ESA is providing launch opportunities for student-built 1 kg satellites. However, for these students, the decision to go for a scientific carrier was taken long time before that. How to inspire younger students to study science? I am not sure that there is a consensus between experts for the reasons of that lack of interest for science and engineering, and why this is more pronounced in the so-called richest countries. Mariano Gago, had clear ideas on the subject, and I wish to finish my talk by giving him, once more, the floor. I quote: “in contrast with the expectations of those who live within the science sector, the youth and even some of the most creative youth, is not keen on science and technology. To study science is hard work. For those who like it, it can be fun. But it's hard work. You will not permeate youth culture in a rich society only with job perspectives. In a vast number of families, youth will think: why not choose something easier? Life will not be bad at all… after all. It's not by telling the youth that science is very important for making a lot of money in companies. That will not change the mind of any one of fourteen, fifteen. Science is not presented as connected to human values. Only the human values of science can motivate and permeate youth culture”.


Manuel Paiva, honorary professor of physics and former director of the Biomedical Physics Laboratory, Université Libre de Bruxelles, Belgium.

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