Satellites and schoolchildren
“Older children are interested in rocks from mars and the moon, but there is nothing more fascinating to a primary school child than dinosaur poo. The best thing I ever bought for outreach work is a piece of dinosaur poo.” - Dr Paul Roche; Head of Astronomy and Director of Faulkes Telescope
Dr Paul Roche has spent his career enthusing teachers, school children and members of the public about space, and from time to time, fitting in some research too. He is confident this outreach has had an impact beyond academia even if it cannot be measured and quantified in the terms of new patents or a life-saving drug.
“My main impact has been from working directly with teachers, showing them the “cutting edge” astronomical research and providing them with tools, software, data, and training to allow them to bring some of that into the classroom. This can then be channelled directly to students, exposing them to ‘real science’, showing them how some of the physics and maths they learn in school can be applied on a universal scale.”
Between 2001 and 2011 Dr Roche received funding from STFC that enabled him to travel around the country visiting schools as the National Schools’ Astronomer. With the help of organisations like the Institute of Physics, which has existing national school networks, he had the privilege of visiting hundreds of schools talking to A-level students through to infant pupils about space and astronomy.
Dr Roche’s own research is on massive stars, neutron stars, and black holes. He is currently based at University of Glamorgan combining his National School Astronomer’s role with the Director of the Faulkes Telescope Project, which gives school children the opportunity to access huge robotic telescopes in Australia and Hawaii to engage in research-based science education. He is also developing a new undergraduate course in observational astronomy.
Dr Roche points out that he has followed an unusual and eclectic career path since his PhD: he has been a lecturer, researcher, science communicator, and educator, often simultaneously. He spent a couple of years out of academia as the first head of education at the National Space Science Centre in Leicester. This experience taught him a lot about working with the public on a large scale and he was able to use this experience to take on the role of Director of the Faulkes Telescope Project. “The Faulkes Telescope Project lets school children become involved in the process of science. I have had two PhD students whose thesis work was almost entirely based on data obtained from the telescopes, much of it as a result of data gathered by schools.
This is a new kind of science, engaging thousands of people, and I am always amazed how good kids and the public can be with science – a number of schools have even appeared on papers published in research journals. ”
Dr Roche admits that combining the level of outreach that he does with his research is a challenge and has not always been viewed favourably by fellow researchers.
“You have to have supportive supervisors as they decide the time you can spend on this and I have been fortunate in that respect. There is certainly now a much wider recognition for the benefits of science communication helped by TV programmes and a new generation comfortable with social media.”
Finally, Dr Roche’s advice to any researchers that want to go into schools and interact with schoolchildren is to have a good toolkit of props. He says:“Older children are interested in rocks from Mars and the Moon, but there is nothing more fascinating to a primary school child than dinosaur poo. The best thing I ever bought for outreach work is a piece of dinosaur poo.”
Institution:University of Glamorgan