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UK Space Agency’s One Million Interactions programme

To celebrate World Space Week, we hear from the UK Space Agency about the work we are doing together through The One Million Interactions programme, which aims to get space professionals to deliver one million engagements with young people every year. Jeremy Curtis

You may have thought that space couldn’t get any bigger, but in the UK it really is a growing sector, even in these trying times, with space launch sites being built, constellations of satellites being launched and new companies springing up across the country.  

But one big problem stands in our way: we need more skilled people.  STEM skills are at the top of the list for employers in the sector: we need engineers to design and build satellites as well as the systems on the ground that control them; we need computer scientists to handle the vast amounts of data they produce; we need scientists to interpret information from space about weather, climate, the environment and the universe; we need all kinds of technologists and mathematicians to harness these things to help in our daily lives – from using satellite tracking for vehicles, to imagery for farming and responding to natural disasters, and to satellite communications for TV and broadband. The list goes on, but you get the picture.

The One Million Interactions programme

So, we launched a new initiative last year with The Careers & Enterprise Company and the Space Education Office (ESERO-UK).  The One Million Interactions programme was set up to help – it aims to get space professionals to deliver one million engagements with young people every year (not necessarily one million young people, since research shows that multiple engagements can be more effective). 

These engagements take many forms – from talking to a class of school children about careers in space, to setting a space design challenge for a coding club, to showing a group of Brownies round a space manufacturing company.

In the first half of this year, the first 584 Space Ambassadors (as we like to call them) managed to deliver over a quarter of a million engagements, many of them during periods of lockdown! As we continue to welcome more of the 42,000 people working in the space sector onto the scheme, I look forward to reaching our first million interactions.

Here's the story of one of them: John Chinner, Airbus

I am an engineer and STEM Ambassador for Airbus Defence and Space. Airbus is the largest aerospace company in Europe and I work in the part of the business that makes military aircraft, secure networks and spacecraft.

Airbus Defence and Space has a diverse portfolio, in space and right here on Earth. Projects like Rosetta, where we designed and built the “mothership” that carried the lander to the comet. Solar Orbiter launched recently to study the Sun, and the ExoMars rover that will launch to the red planet in 2022 to search for signs or past or present life.

As well as the many exiting space projects, we also provide secure satellite communications for the UK MoD, pioneered solar electric unscrewed stratospheric aircraft with Zephyr, and supply numerous military aircraft like the Eurofighter Typhoon, and the A400m heavy lift transport aircraft.

Firstly, I am really lucky, not only to work in the space business, but to have access to many exciting and inspirational projects. It gives me great pleasure to leverage my position to create opportunities for young people to explore the world of engineering, not by “looking around” but by giving them actual hands on experience through “value added” work experience opportunities and school visits.

It’s ok to watch someone working, but how about you have a go yourself? It’s ok if it doesn’t work, because that is part of the learning cycle. 

As an ex apprentice I understand the value of vocational training, and as someone who interviews prospective apprentices and graduates, it makes candidates stand out if they have some experience, they can draw upon outside of their academic studies. 

But if we are to really stimulate young people toward science and engineering, we need to intervene at a young age, and not just the students, their teachers, parents and grandparents.

My first outing as a STEM ambassador was to my primary school – I thought to myself “what would I have like to have seen when I was this age”. It was an easy question for me to answer, but if you need help there are plenty of resources to draw upon, like those offered by ESERO. 

Bringing STEM into the classroom

Teachers are busy people, and if you can assist them bringing STEM into the classroom, with exiting, stimulating, and curriculum linked resources they will continue your legacy when you are back behind your desk. 

I like to create opportunities for young people to exercise their critical thinking, problem solving, working together as a team and that success doesn’t have to happen first time.

For key stage 2 I run a “searching for life on mars” workshop, where they have to work in teams to remotely control a robot in another room to search for “life”. The code controlling the robot isn’t perfect, but rather than fix it, I decided to leave the bugs to be found. Once they find a “bug” in the code, they have to work around the problem. It gives me great satisfaction to see how creative their minds can be -  “We can’t turn the robot 90 degrees to the left, so we are turning 270 degrees to the right”.   

Being a STEM ambassador is symbiotic. It gives me great pleasure and renews my energy to know the young people we meet are the pioneering scientists and engineers of the future. The least I can do is show them that you don’t have to have a lab coat and PhD to work in space. 

If you would like to sign up or find out more, you can do so here: www.stem.org.uk/esero/inspiring-next-generation