The Experience of ‘Work Experience’ at MSSL

Some of the work experience students doing project work in the MSSL gardens. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

Some of the work experience students doing project work in the MSSL gardens. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

Last month MSSL (where I work) hosted 19 students (mostly 17-18 year olds) for a week of work experience. They had all contacted us themselves to see if they could find out what working in astronomy and space science is really like, so a group of PhD students (including me, and led by Will Dunn) decided to run one week of workshops, talks and project work for them.

MSSL has 100-150 people on site every day, all working in a huge number of areas connected to space. We have the ‘science’ groups, including astrophysics, solar, space plasma, and planetary science as well as the ‘engineering’ groups, including cryogenics, imaging, electronic and mechanical engineering, plus people in various groups who are well experienced in developing and managing space missions. To allow the students to experience as much of this as possible in only one week we developed a workshop for each of Mon-Thurs mornings based on one of the science groups, and those afternoons were given over to group project work. Interspersed throughout the days were talks and Q&A sessions with many of the scientists and engineers who work here.

Group photo of the work experience students. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

Group photo of the work experience students. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

Students enjoying their project work. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

Students enjoying their project work. Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

For the project work we asked the students (in groups of 4-5) to design a space mission based on a general science topic we had assigned them. They developed a written proposal including a specific science case, location, size and instrument selection for the mission, a data exploitation plan and outreach plan. We then asked them to present their mission case to a room full of scientists and engineers from MSSL, including four judges who then chose the winning group.

Monday was assigned to be the ‘astrophysics day’, so the first workshop was delivered by Richelle, an astrophysics student who is currently writing up her project as she will begin maths teacher training in September. I was supporting Richelle for this 90 minute workshop, where we led them through what the astro group does here, what astronomical simulations are and what star clusters are, before they got to the workshop activity. This is when they simulated their own open star clusters evolving while orbiting a galaxy, plotted the loss of mass over the cluster lifetime and discussed the physics behind this mass loss process.

From the very beginning of the astro workshop right up to the end of their project presentations I was hugely impressed with the students; their enthusiasm, engagement and skill in all the tasks we gave them made them a pleasure to teach and spend time with.

There are a few people who deserve huge thanks for making this happen, not least Will, who did a great job co-ordinating the week, the other PhD students who developed workshops and project outlines, ideas and structures, Libby in the main office who took care of the admin, travel and accommodation arrangements for students, plus all the staff at MSSL who helped out with talks. We are planning to run a similar week next June/July as well so I’m looking forward to reading the evaluation comments from this one and hopefully the next will be even better!

Edit: Oh, and if you want to find out more about MSSL and meet the scientists and engineers here for yourself, then come along to our Open Day on Saturday 13th Sept. The day is free, but you have to pre-book here.

The judges deliberating over which group should win! Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

The judges deliberating over which group should win! Photo credit: MSSL/Martin de la Nougerede

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