IOP Scholars’ Programme: trainee teachers gravitate towards Leicester for out-of-this-world opportunity

Leicester is an unassuming place to house the UK’s largest visitor centre devoted to space science. But the National Space Centre was the perfect location for a group of IOP Scholars, who travelled from all around England to join the IOP’s first Supertrip



On a January morning, 25 student physics teachers in the middle of their training gathered for our first ever Scholars’ event. They are part of a larger group of 146 Scholars, chosen by the IOP to receive our prestigious IOP Teacher Training Scholarships for 2014-5.

The day was tailored to provide valuable skills and knowledge which they could implement when they returned to school and we hope will benefit their teaching for years to come. Potentially just as useful as the scheduled activities, the Scholars used the day as an opportunity to meet each other, chat and share their progress as trainee teachers.

The National Space Centre’s Andy McMurray kicked off the morning with a diverse selection of exciting and engaging physics demonstrations, imparting all of his skills of how best to perform them. Andy readily encouraged participation for all of the physics demonstrations he showcased, except the water cooler rocket. I could understand why, after seeing the noise and flames which the rocket spews out when burning the vaporised ethanol!

Andy then cooked up a comet there in the lab. This visually-stunning and awe-inspiring demonstration made it obvious how a pupil would have their imagination grasped by applying their physics principles to a space context. When Andy held aloft the bubbling, hissing, steaming comet – a mixture of water, sand, graphite, alcohol, Worcestershire sauce and dry ice – my imagination was immediately transported to space, where it was easy to picture the objects, hurtling around as they do.

Next, he also called on an IOP Scholar to demonstrate how they would use a hula-hoop, piece of Lycra cloth and marbles to help explain how gravity and orbits works. A very similar method is demonstrated at Gravity Visualized, a great YouTube video which has almost ten million views.

We also enjoyed Andy’s demonstration of a compressed-air launcher, made from household plumbing equipment and a bicycle pump. It can be used to launch a rocket or dragster – if you want to try it yourself, look up the IOP’s Dragster Workshops which are run around the UK and Ireland by our Physics Teacher Network.

You can download Andy McMurray’s presentation here.

Straight after Andy’s whirlwind of demonstrations, the Scholars attended a show at the Sir Patrick Moore Planetarium, where we all enjoyed the We are Aliens show and considered our place in the Intergalactic Community, asking ourselves the question, “Are we alone in the universe?”

Thankfully, the Scholars didn’t find themselves alone after lunch as they were joined by the IOP’s local Physics Network Co-ordinator Matthew Taunton. He has run many school trips and passed on his wealth of experience, including tips on making them fun, promoting learning and ensuring pupils stay safe.

After Matthew’s session, the Scholars were free to explore the National Space Centre and its array of interactive exhibits. We could find out our body-weights on Mars, take a trip to one of Jupiter’s moons in the 3D simulator and video-record our performance as a weather forecaster. Of course, this depended on us being willing to push aside the legions of eagerly queueing children!

As well as the interactive exhibits, there are a number of examples of real space technology – most obviously (and sizably) the Thor and Blue Streak rockets, which fill the Centre’s specially built 42 metre-tall tower.

From arrival to departure, the National Space Centre’s friendly and passionate staff ran the content-packed day seamlessly. This setting, combined with the fundamentally interesting topic of space, would provide a great opportunity to deepen physics knowledge and stimulate interest in how physics governs space for pupils of any school age.

Thank you to Amy from the National Space Centre, who organised the day for us. And thank you to Andy and Matthew for presenting great sessions which made the day a success. And thank you to the most integral component of the day – the Scholars – for travelling from around the country on one of your few days off!

Here are a couple of comments from Scholars who attended the event. I think they sum up both the fun that was had but also how full the schedule was:

“Really great experience – motivation to visit somewhere new, think about trips, meet other Scholars and compare ideas”

“Having offered to let people have a play don’t take it away because someone wants to do a demo – even adults can be disappointed!”


Tom Allen
IOP Education team