Australasian Science: Australia's authority on science since 1938

Lessons from Space Camp

By Jackie Slaviero

Fascination with space travel can launch primary students into a life of maths and science discovery.

In 1977 the head of NASA, Dr Wernher von Braun, was visiting NASA’s first visitor centre in Huntsville, Alabama. He noticed children studying the rockets on display and making notes.

“We have band camps, football camps, cheerleading camps – why don’t we have a science camp?” von Braun suggested to Edward O. Buckbee, then CEO of the centre.

Five years later NASA’s Space Camp was founded to promote the study of maths, science and technology in schools. Now entering its thirtieth year of operation, Space Camp has seen more than 500,000 students graduate from its programs and has delivered on its goals.

A survey of more than 9000 Space Camp alumni found that 93% had taken more science courses and 91% had taken more maths courses after attending the camp. Another survey of students from nine North Alabama schools found they had achieved a 21% gain in their understanding of the scientific process and a 47% gain in understanding of the significance of space exploration.

Such outcomes are worth considering at a time when the low levels of participation in maths and science courses at school and university are a focus of concern for educators, businesses and the Australian government. The Prime Minister has asked the Chief Scientist, Professor Ian Chubb, to advise the government on how to raise the levels of participation and performance in maths and science subjects.

Our future capacity for innovation is directly linked with the knowledge, skills and attitudes of our young people. Students in classrooms all over Australia hold the nation’s future in their hands. It is up to educators to provide as many opportunities, both inside and outside the classroom, for their students to reach their full potential.

Space Camp can provide very powerful inspiration and foundations to encourage students to continue studies in science, maths and technology.

In an age where everything is “virtual” quite often we forget the best learning experiences we have ever had were when we made a mess and actively participated in a hands-on activity. Human beings are tactile learners – they like to use all the senses and truly experience things. Space Camp has virtual experiences, but to truly experience Space Camp you have to live it.

Space Camp promotes the development of strong skills in science, maths and technology. Its programs are offered to anyone aged 9 to 99. Visually impaired students have camps a number of times throughout the year.

By delivering a diverse range of courses, Space Camp fires the imaginations of all attendees. Apart from knowledge of space science, the program promotes an “I can” attitude. Students develop strong leadership skills, and very noticeable increases are made in the areas of personal development and confidence building. This is 21st century learning at its best – innovative, creative and hands-on.

Taking students to Space Camp has become an important part of my approach to teaching science. These excursions can be demanding undertakings for students, parents and staff – not least the fundraising needed to make them possible – but the results more than repay the effort.

After attending Space Camp in 2010, a 10-year-old student from Eastwood Public School wrote:

Space Camp is such an amazing experience and I loved it so much. This journey helped me have a greater understanding of space and astronomy. Throughout the camp I made deeper relationships with friends and made bonds with others which I will cherish forever. Space Camp has made me gain a lot of confidence and to do my best. I hope that others will be able to share this experience and learn as much as I did.

Space Camp also took her and her classmates beyond being bored or intimidated by maths and science to being intrigued and excited and wanting to learn more. We need more Australian students to experience that awakening.

Jackie Slaviero is Assistant Principal at Sydney’s Eastwood Public School and a councillor of the NSW Science Teachers’ Association. She and her pupils are currently raising funds to visit Space Camp later this year.