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Does space flight inspire school students to take STEM subjects?

Posted on 26 January 2015

Science Education researchers at University of York are to work with leading space scientist and The Sky at Night presenter Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock to investigate if human spaceflight inspires school students to take science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects.

International Space Station (credit: NASA's Marshall Space Flight Center, Flickr)

The £348,000 three-year project, funded by the UK Space Agency and the Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC), will focus on British astronaut Tim Peake’s mission to the International Space Station (ISS), to be launched at the end of November 2015. 

Tim Peake is the first British member of the European Space Agency’s astronaut corps, and he will become the first Briton to visit the ISS.  As well as delivering invaluable scientific research and cutting edge technology, it is hoped that the programme will boost participation and interest in STEM subjects among school children.

The research will involve gathering views from pupils and teachers from a sample of 30 primary and 30 secondary schools. In addition, perspectives will be gained from space scientists on areas of the industry that may influence students. Participants will be asked their advice on space science resources for use with school students, leading to the production of an overview of space science resources. The study, starting in January 2015, will also involve the design of a new instrument to assess school students’ attitudes to STEM subjects and to space science.

Principal Investigator Professor Judith Bennett, from the Department of Education at the University of York, said: “There is anecdotal evidence to suggest that space and space travel increase the interest of young people in science, technology, engineering and maths (STEM) subjects. We have a golden opportunity to gauge this hypothesis as we prepare to send a British astronaut into space at the end of next year.”

Dr Maggie Aderin-Pocock added: “It is important that we help students to see the correlation between what they are studying in the classroom and what people do outside as scientists. The University of York’s study will help to find out more about what inspires young people to participate in and gain a life-long passion in STEM subjects.”

David Parker, Chief Executive of the UK Space Agency said: “The UK Space Agency is committed to supporting UK space activities.  This research will allow us to better understand the ways in which our programmes affect society.  The excitement of space gives an excellent context for STEM education, and we’re keen to make sure that the benefits of space – for education, for society, for growth – are properly assessed and understood.”

Co-Investigators on the project are Dr Jeremy Airey and Dr Lynda Dunlop from the Department of Education, University of York.

Further information:

  • Maggie Aderin-Pocock has been a space scientist for over 20 years and co-presents The Sky at Night for the BBC. She has worked as an academic, with much of her recent work focusing on engaging young people with STEM subjects and evaluating the effects of engagement activities. She has extensive experience of working with young people, particularly those from disadvantaged backgrounds, and has received an MBE for her work.
  • Judith Bennett recently undertook the review on attitudes, participation and engagement in STEM subjects for the Royal Society’s Vision Project 2014.  She has been Principal Investigator on a number of externally funded projects, involving the design and use of instruments to assess school students’ attitudes to science, and school-based, socio-economic and gender factors that exert an impact on levels of uptake in STEM subjects. 
  • Lynda Dunlop and Jeremy Airey have experience in undertaking research in primary and secondary schools, and in the development and evaluation of STEM teaching resources at the primary and secondary level.
  • The Department of Education at University of York, which celebrated its 50 year anniversary in 2014, is widely recognised in the UK and beyond as a leading department in the field of education with a national and international reputation for the excellence of its degree programmes, research and curriculum development work.
  • UK Space Agency is at the heart of UK efforts to explore and benefit from space.  It is responsible for all strategic decisions on the UK civil space programme and provides a clear, single voice for UK space ambitions.The Agency is responsible for ensuring that the UK retains and grows a strategic capability in the space-based systems, technologies, science and applications. It leads the UK’s civil space programme in order to win sustainable economic growth, secure new scientific knowledge and provide benefits to all citizens.
  • The UK Space Agency:
    • Co-ordinates UK civil space activity
    • Encourages academic research
    • Supports the UK space industry
    • Raises the profile of UK space activities at home and abroad
    • Increases understanding of space science and its practical benefits
    • Inspires our next generation of UK scientists and engineers
    • Licences the launch and operation of UK spacecraft
    • Promotes co-operation and participation in the European Space programme
  • The Economic and Social Research Council (ESRC) is the UK’s largest funder of research on the social and economic questions facing us today. It supports the development and training of the UK’s future social scientists and also funds major studies that provide the infrastructure for research. ESRC-funded research informs policymakers and practitioners and helps make businesses, voluntary bodies and other organisations more effective. The ESRC also works collaboratively with six other UK research councils and Innovate UK to fund cross-disciplinary research and innovation addressing major societal challenges. The ESRC is an independent organisation, established by Royal Charter in 1965, and funded mainly by the Government. In 2015 it celebrates its 50th anniversary.
  • For more information about the Department of Education at the University of York, please visit

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