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A New Frontier - UK National Space Academy at BSB Shunyi

22 March 2016

A new initiative launched at the British School of Beijing sees students inspired by the mysteries of Space. 

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By Tim Lyddiatt

With the foyer filled with the rousing opening bars of the Star Wars theme played by members of the school orchestra, and the stage still sporting the stunning backdrop created for their production of Return to the Forbidden Planet, the British School of Beijing (BSB), Shunyi was staring deep into Space last week. Indeed, just as a life size cut-out of Tim Peake, the first British astronaut to take residence on the International Space Station, looked over proceedings in both the foyer and the theatre, the real life Tim Peake “was looking over all us from far above in space,” reminded Anu Ojha OBE, Director of the UK’s National Space Academy. There was a lot going on at BSB to pique his interest.

In his opening address, BSB Principal Andy Puttock spoke of the historic nature of what was beginning that day. “Space Inspires,” he said, and it was equally inspiring that for the first time a programme that uses space as the backdrop to foster interest in Science, Technology, Engineering and Maths (STEM) was being offered in China, “part of a historic partnership between the space agencies of the UK and China in an effort to further education initiatives in both countries. This amazing opportunity will provide outstanding experiences for our students, and a chance to develop a long-term partnership with schools and organisations in China.”

Mr Ojha and his team were in Beijing launching, for the first time in China, a programme that already runs at the UK’s Space Academy and sees master-classes for seven thousand UK students and teacher training for one thousand teachers take place across the UK annually. Today was day one of a project slated to run for at least the 10 years. This project represents the further coming together of two governments in order to develop education and “is just the beginning of far greater co-operation between China and Britain,” said Foreign and Commonwealth Office representative, Colin Crooks.

The programme has backing and support from the highest levels of UK government who see it as the start of a new era of co-operation and collaboration with agencies in China. “We are delighted to have the opportunity to work towards the development of further international science education programmes in the future for the benefit of students, teachers and science industries in both the UK and China,” said Secretary of State for Education, Nicky Morgan, in a statement read at the opening ceremony. Bringing these two industrial power-houses closer together feels like a no-brainer at a time when economies are struggling to pick-up in the aftermath of the financial collapse of 2008.

After the launch, the Space Academy team got down to business, delivering master-classes designed to generate interest in the sciences by approaching them through their application in the context of space exploration and discovery. “We use space,” said National Space Academy Manager Dr Kierann Shah, “because it is such an inspirational topic – from understanding our place in the universe, to observing our planet, exploring the solar system, and using satellite technologies to improve our daily lives, it has so much to offer as a platform for learning about science.”

An example lecture: starting from the premise that space is “pretty inhospitable place to be,” Biology teacher, Chris Carr, told a group of BSB and invited Chinese students and teachers, “it is amazing to think that anything could live there. That is, until you look at some of the most inhospitable places on earth and find that life exists in the most unlikely places.” He then leads the rapt audience through a series of experiments using extremes of acidity and temperature, looking at what happens to life under such circumstances before explaining that life flourishes in both these harsh environments. It is compelling stuff and perfectly demonstrates the programme’s aims.

Speaking to BSB teachers, it becomes clear that they support initiatives like this. “Sometimes all it takes is a spark,” BSB Head of Science, Nicola Hemming, told me. “Days like today grab students’ attention, inspiring them to choose the STEM path. The teacher training we will receive tomorrow, I hope, will energise the science team and give them even more ideas on how to re-create these ‘Wow’ moments in our own classrooms within the context of space.”

Dr Shah explained that whilst the master-classes for students were great at reaching and inspiring individual students, “the real value of the programme comes in the teacher training that allows the message and techniques to spread further and further over an extended period of time. “By running these sessions in China for the first time, it feels like we are at the beginning of something really important.”

If you have paid any attention at all to anything either President Obama or Prime Minister Cameron has said about secondary and higher education in the past few years, you will be familiar with the term STEM, it seems to be all they and everyone else seems to be speaking about. Why? The argument goes that in a fast developing and changing world, jobs and greater prosperity can only come from the creation of new technologies and industries. They point at the internet and Silicon Valley, at Google and Facebook, as examples of this shiny new future. Hugh Mortimer is a research fellow at the Science and Technologies Facilities Council, Rutherford Appleton Laboratory. He told me that “the space industry is in the UK is growing at between 7 and 8 per cent per year, creating jobs in industries that simply didn’t exist 10 years ago.”

He talks about the analysis of data - “vast amounts of data” - generated by the myriad satellites thrown up into space every year, and the advances made in “understanding how our planet works;” he talks about telecommunications technology and the potential for “positive developmental change” they offer. He talks about Britain and how it is taking the lead in the wider context of the European space agency, particularly in terms of its relationship with Chinese agencies. “Their number one priority is to work more closely with them; we have shown them how it can be done.”

Mr Mortimer believes that what programmes like the one unveiled at BSB really offer is a way forward to greater co-operation and the creation of even better students in the future. “China produces outstanding students with some the highest technical skills I have ever seen. Britain produces equally gifted students with a flair for innovation, for communicating about their ideas. What I hope this initiative will do is to create a place where these two skillsets can coalesce around a single student: off the charts smart and creative and innovative and able to effectively communicate their ideas.”

I have heard this desire before. Speaking to Macalester College President, Brian Rosenburg, later that day, he described why he believed there was increased interest in a Liberal Arts education in Asia, and across the world. “Students and their parents are listening to what employers have been saying to universities for years: grades are not enough, not on their own. Students need to be able think creatively, think and act quickly from a position of broad knowledge and be unfazed by the unexpected: they need to be able to change tack in an instant. They also need to be able work in teams, communicate their ideas and be able to argue their case when confronted by opposition. These are the skills that employers are looking for.”

Returning to the Biology class I witnessed, it was insightful to watch the expressions on students’ faces. Irrespective of whether they wore the uniform of BSB or were garbed in the more casual attire of the visiting students, their faces told stories of something new discovered. It might not have been brand new science to many of them, certainly they answered questions promptly enough, but on their faces I could see the turning of cogs inside their minds, the dawning realisation that what they were witnessing was no longer isolated to the lab coat environment of their studies, that there were ramifications and consequences to them that could led them not just to higher grades, but toward developing new ideas, new industries: new hope.

Space inspires.

Updates from: Mr. Tim Lyddiatt,  the University Counsellor at BSB


NSA's visit at BSB Shunyi is part of an international collaboration in space science education between the UK and China being led by the NSA, Beijing University PT, the British Embassy and the British Council. NSA's Director & Scientists conducted Masterclasses for BSB's and Beijing local schools' students & teachers on March 15 & 16. 

Please click on the link below for more details