Schools Life and learning on Mars

Science education has come a long way in the past few decades, particularly when it comes to practicals and excursions. Long gone are the days of ‘chalk and talk’ interspersed with the occasional chemistry prac. Not only do we now have an array of online resources and interactive practicals to engage our students in real-world science, but here in Victoria we also have access to six science and mathematics specialist centres.

This network of centres, available to all Victorian students and their teachers, aims to engage participants in contemporary and authentic science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) learning experiences, increasing students’ scientific literacy and opening up potential career pathways.

One such centre is the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC), opened in 2006. Located on the grounds of Strathmore Secondary College and conceived by members of its science department, VSSEC uses the ever-intriguing topic of space as a science learning tool. 

“Our centre was the first centre to introduce scenario-based learning, linked to project-based learning in the classroom,” says Michael Pakakis, VSSEC director. “We developed a whole series of projects that students visit the centre to complete, supported by in-classroom learning. We try to supplement what classroom teachers are already doing, with some additional interactive and engaging opportunities.”

“When students come to the centre they put on their spacesuits and helmets and backpacks, then they get flown to ‘Mars’ in our 3D surround-sound theatre.”

Michael Pakakis, VSSEC director

Such interactive activities range from the ‘Fully Charged’ program for Years 5 and 6, whereby students use balloons and confetti to conduct static electricity experiments, through to the ‘Medicinal Chemistry’ program for Year 12s, where students practice techniques such as High Performance Liquid Chromatography.

But the centre’s flagship program is its ‘Mission to Mars’ simulation, a problem-solving activity whereby students complete a geological survey of the surface of Mars.

“We wanted students to immerse themselves in the roles of astronauts, engineers and research scientists,” Pakakis explains. “When students come to the centre they put on their spacesuits and helmets and backpacks, then they get flown to ‘Mars’ in our 3D surround-sound theatre. The students playing the role of ‘engineers’ are upstairs in Mission Control, interacting with their ‘astronaut’ classmates through specialised software.”

Students participate in a range of STEM activities at the Victorian Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC). Photos: Supplied

During the activity, students collect soil and rock samples, drill an ice core, conduct a thermal survey and measure seismic activity. They then ‘return to earth’ to analyse their samples and undertake further activities in the laboratory.

“At the end of the day, the students can tell the geological story of what actually happened in that crater, and date the crater,” says Pakakis. “The activity is very heavy on communication skills, collaborative skills and teamwork, as well as critical and creative thinking.”

While the ‘Mission to Mars’ is an in-centre experience, VSSEC also runs a range of outreach and online programs. Tara Crowe, Head of Science Learning at Horsham College in western Victoria says VSSEC’s twice-yearly visits have provided students with invaluable learning opportunities.

“We typically offer professional learning to between 300 and 600 teachers per year and we have a range of enrichment and extension STEM activities that teachers can download and use.”

Michael Pakakis, VSSEC director

“VSSEC brings up amazing rock samples for our Year 8 ‘rocks’ unit that we just couldn’t get ourselves,” says Tara. “They also do a rocket activity with our year 7s to teach forces. The kids have a ball trying to fly the rockets as far as they possibly can. They don’t even realise that they’re learning about forces and energy as they’re doing it.”

VSSEC also presented at Horsham College’s ‘Science Extravaganza’, a large-scale community event run by the school during Science Week. “They ran a session with rockets to help inspire science within our community as well,” Tara says.

Between 10,000 and 12,000 students visit the centre each year, with an additional 5,000 students participating in the centre’s outreach programs. VSSEC also offers a range of professional development programs and online resources for teachers.

“We typically offer professional learning to between 300 and 600 teachers per year and we have a range of enrichment and extension STEM activities that teachers can download and use,” says Pakakis.

In developing their programs, VSSEC works in partnership with a range of institutions, including universities, NASA and the European Space Agency.

In developing their programs, VSSEC works in partnership with a range of institutions, including universities, NASA and the European Space Agency. “We were invited to be part of the International Space Education Board, which allows us to sit on a table with the Heads of Education of all of the major space agencies in the world,” says Pakakis.

“Over the past seven years we have coordinated the professional learning program for that group. It also allows us access to a multitude of resources. Each year that we get together with that group we tend to bring back an enormous amount of material to allow us to develop curriculum that Victorian students benefit from.”

As with the other five science and mathematics specialist centres, priority is given to rural/regional and disadvantaged schools, providing a valuable opportunity for students across the state to engage in STEM. “VSSEC’s incursion activities have been fantastic for us. I’d absolutely recommend them,” says Tara. “We’ve always got some kids that rarely engage with anything – but they do engage with the practical component that VSSEC brings, which is awesome.”

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