School Space Race boosts students’ self-belief and excites communities

“Tim, when you are in space and you take your clothes off before you go to bed… how do you stop them floating away?” asked a teenage schoolgirl from Norfolk.

She was talking via amateur radio equipment to British astronaut Tim Peake live on the International Space Station. I was fortunate to witness this egalitarian moment. There is no higher ground than space, above politics, race, class, age and gender. As part of Tim’s legacy we were going there – with nothing other than a budget of £500, internet access and amateur radio equipment. The adults of tomorrow were claiming space for themselves and seeing each other as equals for the first time.

With the Brexit debate raging all around them the same students that spoke to Tim Peake reached out across the globe. If you can speak to Tim Peake in space then chatting to your peers in South Africa or Ethiopia isn’t a big deal. Over the following nine months, five teams in the UK partnered with five in sub-Saharan Africa, working to design, launch and recover their own spacecraft in the Yellobric School Space Race.

There is a reason why the Hunger Games is the most read book in the Yellobric digital library. Society has conditioned our students to see themselves as the third-class citizens of District 12, unable to travel outside their own country, striving against all odds to make ends meet and unable to lift their heads. Being bright, tenacious, charming and resourceful simply isn’t enough. Self-belief is a precious thing. There are a few things that can lend self-belief: it may be seeing your favourite African footballer lift the Champions League trophy, or it could be seeing the breathtaking images of near space beamed down live from a spacecraft you designed.

That’s why Wendy will be doing a two-year course at United World College with a view to taking astrophysics at an overseas university; that’s why Glen has designed, entered and won the South Africa Electric Vehicle Challenge; that’s why Paris has designed and built a quadricycle to make the two-mile journey to school each day; and that’s why I now have some idea what a quadricycle is. Success can only be built on ambition. The greatest gift is confidence.

The UK schools started with a stereotype of their African partners and finished with them on an equal footing. They finished with the same stunning images of the same planet and the same excitement of the pursuit. Each team was able to follow their partner team’s progress live (along with the rest of he planet), track their balloon, see real time images from the payloads and a live stream of the launch site. And all of this using virtually the same technology as they used to chat to Tim Peake months earlier.

It wouldn’t be right to ignore the benefits of applied science for students who don’t have laboratories, field trips or exchange programmes. For most of the students in Africa the 260km balloon chase was the furthest they had ever been from home. What would be even worse to omit is the sheer joy of the chase – the childish excitement that swept through, students, teachers, locals and even the school bus driver who attended the debrief the following day.

Learning to code, applying your physics theory to the balloon, understanding the various layers of the stratosphere, getting permission from the aviation regulatory body, and protecting your payload against one of the most hostile environments known to man is the start. A gruelling chase for hours on end across borders, up hill and down the lowveld is all worth it when you finally come across your payload.

When Paris did eventually find his, further away from home than he had ever been, just minutes from sunset, all he could say was: “It just goes to show, you should never give up.”

  • Funding for the Yellobric School Space Race was provided by Sir Tejinder Virdee. Apply for an IOP Virdee Grant via our main website
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Gavin Paterson

Gavin Paterson

Gavin co-founded the charity Yellobric in Feb 2011 after traveling by land down the West coast of Africa for 5 months. The charity provides eLearning facilities and support to developing world schools focusing on South Africa and Ethiopia. Notable successes include accreditation as a pilot scheme by the department of education in South Africa. The programme demonstrated a 13% increase in literacy with significantly higher improvements in literacy for top students. The latest version for the eLearning platform 2enable used in the schools allows students to use their smart phones to download expert video lessons from a hub in the school and learn wherever they are. See
Gavin Paterson

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