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Pandemic inspires children to get involved in science, data suggests

By Nina Massey, PA Science Correspondent

The coronavirus pandemic has inspired more than a third (35%) of children to pursue careers in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem), new data suggests.

According to the figures, children in the UK are most inspired to be doctors or nurses (29%) and astronauts (25%).

Youngsters have also been particularly engaged by scientific discoveries over the last 12 months.

A survey of more than 2,000 parents of children aged five to 16 across the UK found that 50% of youngsters cited NHS frontline staff, the scientists behind the Covid-19 vaccine rollout (31%) and the Mars rover landing (24%) as events that have most inspired.

However, the research also showed that there are still barriers that prevent children from pursuing a career in Stem.

This includes not being given enough information about a career in Stem (38%), parents not knowing enough about Stem careers to be able to advise children (33%) and not enough media coverage (31%).

Other barriers include a lack of role models (28%) and it being seen as too hard to succeed in Stem careers (21%).

To give students the opportunity to channel their interest, aerospace manufacturing firm Thales Alenia Space in the UK is launching its eighth annual MARSBalloon project.

In June the project will launch more than 150 experiment capsules designed by UK schoolchildren into the Earth’s atmosphere via a high-altitude balloon, testing student ideas for technologies that could one day be destined for Mars.

The project is open to any school in the UK, and students can work together to create Mars experiments that fit inside a small egg-sized capsule, putting in anything from electronics, materials, plants and even food.

Previous examples of experiments include testing the effect of conditions on rubber bands, ink, memory sticks and 3D-printed materials.

During the launch the balloon will ascend to 30km, more than twice the height of commercial airliners, in approximately one hour.

It will then burst and the experiment tray will return to Earth via a parachute.

These experiments will then be collected and returned to students for analysis.

They will have experienced conditions very similar to the surface of Mars, including temperatures as low as -50C.

Students will be able to test the response of the experiments to the conditions outside of a future Mars base.

The project is supported by Dr Helen Sharman, the first British astronaut, who said: “I am passionate about showing young people how science is relevant to our lives and of course I believe space is one of the most exciting areas.

“So far humans have launched around 50 missions to the red planet but we still have much to learn about the planet’s environment.

“It’s entirely possible that Mars may be able to support a human colony, and to make best use of space to improve our earthly lives it’s crucial that a future generation of astronauts, scientists and engineers is inspired to try and overcome the biological and technological challenges in order to make that a reality.

“The MARSBalloon project is helping to make space exploration tangible, accessible and most importantly fun.”

Andrew Stanniland, chief executive of Thales Alenia Space in the UK, said: “The space industry, like many other industries across the UK, is acutely aware of the importance of attracting and retaining highly-skilled people and the benefits of having a diverse workforce to innovate and prosper.

“We want to harness students’ curiosity about the world around them from a young age by providing a fun, hands-on experience with MARSBalloon to encourage them on a path into a future career in Stem.”

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