Alien Worlds hit closer to home

An innovative project uses astronomy to reconnect faltering students with the wider universe

Allan Trow & Catherine Tryfona 5 August 2007

Captivated: a child watches Venus transit between the earth and the sun

By covering the fragility of our existence, Alien Worlds aims to foster a sense of environmental responsibility

The South Wales valleys have been synonymous with the working class for the past two hundred years, during which heavy industry dominated the landscape. The battle scars are still observed today in slag heaps and ruined buildings. The destruction of heavy industry during Margaret Thatcher’s reign has seen a dramatic decline in the numbers of employed individuals accompanied by the rapid demise of societal standards. These shifts have been reflected in apathetic attitudes towards education and work in general, with over-reliance on government financial support and increased levels in criminal activity. In parallel, basic skills within the area have declined, with approximately 35% of adults experiencing some level of literacy difficulties. Most educational establishments in the region find that these factors are manifested in the retention and attainment figures for post-compulsory learners.

CASE (Centre for Astronomy & Science Education) of the University of Glamorgan produced an innovative approach to addressing these issues: Alien Worlds, a programme of education developed to rekindle an active interest in astronomy and science whilst strengthening numeracy and literacy skills. The project was financed by the European Social Fund’s Objective One funding scheme.

Although the course was delivered at university undergraduate level, its content needed to be pitched at such a level that learners from a wide range of educational backgrounds were accommodated. We adopted a variety of teaching methods, including lectures, seminars and practicals designed to embrace a wide spectrum of educational abilities. This approach proved to be extremely successful due to the multidisciplinary nature of astronomy.

Inspirational An image of the Milky Way and Jupiter taken by one of the students in the Alien World course

Astronomy has a wide appeal to the general public with images of planets and galaxies appearing in the media regularly. Alien Worlds has taken these images and astronomical events, such as the transit of Venus (pictured in the main image), to inspire individuals to consider the role of science in contemporary society. To achieve this, the course examines the philosophical and scientific implications of past discoveries and their influence on today’s world.

Alien Worlds charts the story of astronomy by taking students on a chronological journey. The seminal milestones visited include the Babylonians and their associated mythology and mathematics; the Greeks and their cosmological musings; the Copernican Revolution; the Renaissance of Science; Darwinism; the Einsteinian Revolution; and the discovery of alien worlds. Furthermore, we increase the scientific literacy of our students by dedicated scientific lectures and seminars on stellar evolution, Big Bang science, exoplanets, anthropology and evolution. The course makes students aware of the perilous nature of the Earth and the environment it inhabits. By covering the fragility of our existence, it aims to foster a sense of environmental responsibility amongst students.

Alien Worlds began in 2004 with 250 students attending classes located in community centres across South Wales. The project was deemed successful and additional funding was secured for a further two years. This further funding allowed the development of second course entitled Space Exploration, which incorporated a robotics component aimed at giving the student an appreciation of the difficulties involved in unmanned missions to other planets. Additionally, the new course also increased their practical abilities and promoted teamwork. At present, these initiatives have attracted approximately 650 students, 321 of which are unemployed. Additionally, our targeted open days have attracted in excess of 1200 people. Such events include viewing the transit of Venus, lunar and solar eclipses and general solar viewing experiences. These events are augmented by a series of public lectures given by guest lecturers, followed up by hands on observing sessions conducted in the RoCCoTO observatory.

Several students have gone on to one of the University’s innovative degree courses in space-related sciences. Others have established their own businesses related to the course, such as ASA Ltd., which supplies scientific and astronomical equipment to schools and universities.

The Alien Worlds programme has been successful in demonstrating the power of astronomy as an educational tool to promote science and to inspire a sense of environmental responsibility. The continuance of such courses should be paramount in the psyche of educational establishments in order to ensure the inclusion of all sectors of society. If we are truly to remain a civilised society we must learn from our ancestors and enjoy the night sky and utilise it for educational purposes, not be part of its destruction.