The classroom of the future
Organisation: Camborne Community College
Location: Cornwall, England
A remote corner of England will soon start building a classroom of the future, designed to look like a Martian mining operation. Combining a futuristic architectural design with the latest high-tech computing and communications technology, the aim is to create a space age setting for British school children.
Camborne is small town in Cornwall, in the extreme south-west of England, an area of social and economic deprivation. The area has a strong mining tradition, but most of the local industry has closed down in recent decades. Educationally, the area suffers from low achievement and aspirations amongst school students, and a tendency for young people to leave the region for work elsewhere in the UK. Camborne Community College (a school catering for 11-18 year olds) is part of an "Education Action Zone" (an area in receipt of additional government funding to assist with improving local education) called the Camborne Pool Redruth (CPR) Success Zone.
Following a call for proposals from the UK Dept. for Education and Skills (DfES), a bid was submitted to an architectural scheme to develop revolutionary new classroom designs. The sum of £624k will provide for the bulk of the building costs (estimated at £1million) but will not cover the internal fit-out of the space and astronomy content proposed for this facility. For these additional funds, we are seeking input from a range of sources, including the ESF funding for community-based projects, the UK science community (grants for public understanding of science are available from the Particle Physics & Astronomy Research Council, the Royal Society and several other charitable bodies) and industry.
The "Education through Space Centre" (ESC) will open in March 2003, and will bring together a high-tech, futuristic setting with the latest in computer and communications technology.
The classrooms will link with weather and communications satellites, NASA and ESA TV, and make use of robotics, video-conferencing and virtual reality. Direct links with the Faulkes robotic telescopes will ensure that the facility has a truly global, space age feel to it. Space science and astronomy will be integral to the centre’s educational programmes.
Design concepts for the "Education through Space Centre"
The building design is exciting and stimulating, with novel materials and futuristic themes to allow users to "suspend disbelief" during their lessons. It will contain two electronically linked classrooms; a heavily themed science lab based around robotic mining of Mars (complete with robots and physics, chemistry, biology and geology experiments) and a "Mars mission control centre" full of computers and communications technology. These mirror the Cornish mining tradition and current links with global communications through the Goonhilly Earth Station, the countries' largest satellite ground-station.
The design for the building envisages a structure based around the elements, with water, fire, earth and air featured in the construction and power sources. As with several proposed Mars habitats, the building will be powered by a combination of natural sources (solar, wind, geo-thermal), will feature hydroponics and recycling, and as with space missions, children will be closely monitoring all aspects of the building using sensors, cameras etc.
The ESC is a highly themed classroom, drawing on the mining tradition of the local region and blending this with the high-tech facility at Goonhilly Earth Station and the futuristic biomes at the Eden Project. To generate the futuristic theming, we have chosen to model the interior of the building on a Martian mining community in the year 2040.
Drawing on the experience of themed classrooms in the USA (e.g. Challenger Learning Centres and the NASA "Classroom of the Future" at Wheeling Jesuit University, Virginia), we have developed an exciting building which fits the DfES scheme of "a building which will confront the design of learning areas and challenge the use of such facilities by teachers and learners in a global context."
By taking our classroom theme from a near-future Martian community, we hope to encourage users to participate in the "global community" which, given the geographical isolation of Cornwall, is not readily apparent to local schoolchildren. As an area of social and economic deprivation (EU Objective 1 status), it is vital that we retain young people within the region. The ESC aims to show them that the historical roots of Cornwall (mining) can be combined with modern engineering and design (e.g. Eden Project, Goonhilly Earth Centre) to ensure that we ca be active participants in the future development of the UK and beyond.
The ESC is a regional project, serving the 32 schools within the CPR Success Zone and also the wider community of Cornwall and Devon. The ESC will be working with groups around the UK and abroad via video-conferencing, radio communications, and will serve as the Cornish "community user centre" for the Faulkes Telescopes project.
The Martian Landscape
The ESC will contain an area measuring ~5m x 5m which we will turn into a Martian landscape, and within that area we will operate a variety of remotely controlled robotic vehicles equipped with basic sensors (black and white cameras, magnetometers) and some manipulative equipment (robotic arms). The landscape is constructed from a mixture of hardboard base covered with a durable surface coating (concrete and SandTex), moulded to create a "realistic" Martian surface with craters, mountains, valleys etc.
A vital component of the “robotic operation” of the Martian mining community is the use of remote camera systems to monitor all aspects of activities on the surface. We will provide a number of fixed cameras, plus a number that will be mounted on mobile units that will move around within the landscape.
Wireless, remotely controlled rovers (remote controlled tank units purchased from a model shop, and heavily modified with new bodywork to look like futuristic vehicles), with robotic arm and magnetometer.
To create a "Martian" feel to the classroom areas, we will use posters, Mars globe and maps, satellite images etc.
With a Mars-themed environment, we hope to be able to maintain interest and topicality over a long timescale, as the robotic exploration of Mars will continue for the foreseeable future. With Beagle 2 landing on Mars in Dec. 2003, our ESC will open at an exciting time for UK involvement in Martian exploration. We aim to link with other groups working on similar projects, video-conference to scientists from around the UK and abroad (e.g. talk to NASA astronauts).
Robotic telescopes for schools education
Accessing a professional telescope in real-time through a PC may seem like a pipedream, but things are about to take a dramatic turn for the better as the UK assumes a leading role in robotic astronomy. With the assistance of the ‘National Schools Observatory’ and ‘Telescopes in Education UK’ programmes, funded by the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council (PPARC), primary and secondary schools across the UK will soon have unprecedented access to research quality astronomical data.
The UK will soon be the world leader in the use of astronomical telescopes for education, with the Faulkes Telescopes (FTs), the Liverpool Telescope (LT) and a range of smaller facilities based around the world as commercially available platforms. Most of these are accessible via the National Schools Observatory (NSO).
Despite the potential benefits offered by these major projects, reliable, fully robotic telescope operation is still to be proven. There are many factors to be considered, not least the weather and other on-site issues. For the FTs, the real-time interface (essentially a password-restricted website) must be made workable ‘live’ in the classroom, and alternative activities prepared for the inevitable sessions lost to poor weather. Last but not least, we need to make the data useful to teachers and students, and in particular activities must be linked to the UK national curriculum.
The Liverpool Telescope
The LT is the first instrument that schools will be able to access. Manufactured at Telescope Technology Limited (TTL) in Birkenhead. LT stands eight metres high, weighs 25 tonnes and has a 2-metre mirror. It will operate autonomously from La Palma in the Canary Islands. Although primarily a research tool, Liverpool John Moores University (LJMU) has allocated five percent of the observing time for schools. LT operations should start early in 2002. Registered users submit observing requests via the NSO website, and download their data within days (‘off-line observing’). Whilst initially equipped with an imaging CCD system, there are plans for a spectrographic capability in the future.
The Faulkes Telescopes
Under a unique donation to UK science education, Dr Martin ‘Dill’ Faulkes is purchasing two clones of the LT. The first will be located at Haleakala Observatory, Maui. With excellent viewing conditions, clear skies 80-90 percent of the time and an 11-hour time difference, UK groups can work ‘real-time’ in daylight hours via the Internet. The second telescope will be located at Siding Springs Observatory, New South Wales, Australia (time difference +10 hours), later in 2002, and will give access to the Southern Hemisphere sky during UK mornings. Like the LT, they will have research-grade 2048x2048 CCD cameras and Sloan filter sets. FT1 will eventually have an infrared camera. The FTs will be the only online telescopes offering real-time observing.
The National Schools Observatory
The NSO, based at LJMU, is developing a broad range of educational programmes, and focussing on the off-line use of astronomical data in the classroom. The NSO website is the portal through which off-line observing requests can be made, using a range of collaborating telescopes.
Schools download their data from the NSO website for analysis using specially designed image-processing software. The whole experience is designed to stimulate young people and provide an effective learning environment for science, mathematics, information and communications technology (ICT) and a range of other National Curriculum subjects.
The Bradford Robotic Telescopes
The Bradford Telescope is just starting a complete refurbishment programme to link it in with the FTs and provide real astronomy experiences on a smaller (probably 30 cm) system. With telescopes on good sites in Tenerife and Australia, it will fill a gap between those students with the sophistication to use the FTs and those with no knowledge at all. Lesson-ready teacher guides and detailed projects will allow students to follow and support work with their own observations. It is hoped that funding will support similar programmes for the school curricula in Scotland and Northern Ireland.
The Robotic Cyberspace Community Telescope and Observatory (RoCCoTO) currently being constructed near Pontypridd in the South Wales valleys should come online in late 2001. Integrated into the NSO and the FT, the 16-inch robotic Meade will be accessible via the Internet using the university’s website, making available a wide database of images and enabling schools, community education groups and the public to access a telescope facility.
Schools research projects
The telescopes will enable schools to work on current science problems, in collaboration with universities across the UK. These might include studying asteroids and comets, imaging distant galaxies, or searching for variable stars, supernovae and gamma-ray bursts. As a news article for a school, the discovery and naming of a new comet or asteroid, or an exploding supergiant star in a distant galaxy will take some beating!
Whilst to astronomers, access to several million pounds’ worth of robotic telescope might seem like a great idea, teachers have understandable concerns about the practicalities of making this work in the classroom. A key component to successfully introducing the various telescopes into the lessons is thus a national programme of teacher training. A comprehensive teacher-training programme will reassure teachers in the off-line and real-time use of robotic telescopes, and in the astronomical knowledge required to maximise the returns from the various projects.
PPARC are funding a 2-year programme of teacher training which covers the technical aspects of controlling the telescopes, and the science that can be done with them.
Faulkes Telescopes and TiE UK:
Dr Paul Roche,
National Schools Astronomer,
Earth & Space Sciences, School of Applied Sciences,
University of Glamorgan, Trefforest CF37 1DL
Tel 01443 480480
Telescopes in Education (USA)
Currently the only active providers of real-time astronomical observing, TiE (USA) uses a dial-in modem on a re-conditioned 24-inch scope at Mt Wilson Observatory outside LA (8 hours time difference to UK). They are hoping to expand to a network of Internet-controlled 14-inch systems in coming years.
Look at http://tie.jpl.nasa.gov/tie/index.html for more details.
Last update: 10 January 2002