Space-age classroom lets pupils reach for the stars

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VISITORS to a further education college in Yorkshire would not expect to walk straight into a mission control centre with a live link to the International Space Station.

A space-age classroom has been unveiled, however, at a college campus in Keighley which tutors are hoping will not only get children inspired by science but also serve as a tourist attraction for the town.

The Star Centre includes a 360-degree planetarium cinema, a mission control room, a planetary surface resembling rock formations found on Mars, an “astrobotics” room, where people can build their own space robots, and a classroom resembling the deck of the Starship Enterprise.

It has been created in the new Keighley campus building of Leeds City College which was completed last year.

Using outer space to inspire school pupils is nothing new for the town.

Its former further education college had its own Star Centre which was created with Yorkshire Forward funding after local school pupils had visited similar facilities in Russia.

The college has since been merged twice and is now part of the Leeds City College.

The new improved Star Centre has been created in a purpose-built area and college bosses believe it is so impressive it will not only be used for education but also as a tourist attraction.

The Mission Control room includes a live feed to the International Space Station meaning visitors can watch the astronauts in action, while its new Cosmodome planetarium allows pupils to be taken on a virtual intergalactic trip into space.

Visitors can also set foot on a mock Mars landscape and build and control their own robots which are based on those actually used in space.

Star Centre manager Ray Barber said: “The number of people who ask us whether we are open on Saturdays has made us think we can use it as a visitors centre as well as for education.

“The new centre has an Earth side with a mission control room and then people use a transit pod to go through to our space side which includes a planetary surface which pupils can walk on wearing astronauts’ helmets and boots.

“Our programmes vary from [catering to] children as young as those in reception class to older children in primary school where we are able to actually teach to the national curriculum.

“There is a subject topic in the curriculum called earth, moon and sun, and we make sure pupils who visit here are taught what they need to know.”

Since the original Star Centre was launched it has worked with around 30,000 school pupils from across the region and its popularity is expected to grow further with its improved facilities.

The facility is now being opened for corporate use with businesses hiring it out for team-building events.

The staff have also developed programmes to be used with youth groups such as Cubs, Scouts, Guides and Brownies and adult learning programmes in astronomy.

Mr Barber: “We opened after seeing the impact a trip to Russia had on a group of pupils.

“It was designed to get pupils interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) subjects and I was asked to get involved as Keighley College’s head of engineering.

“The centre was funded by Yorkshire Forward but was built in the space we had available whereas this has been purpose-built and is much more impressive.

“For instance our old laboratory was just a series of laptops in a classroom but now we have something which is designed to look like the helm of the Starship Enterprise with children working in pods at the edge of the room and the teacher delivering the lesson from the deck,” he explained.

“Subjects vary from teaching primary-aged pupils about the order of the planets right up to A-level science material and beyond.”

The college is now in talks with Keighley Town Council to identify ways of developing it as a visitor attraction.

From March it will be open at weekends as a trial and Mr Barber told the Yorkshire Post that they were keen to find ways of linking up with other local attractions such as historic Cliffe Castle, a 19th century house and museum, and the Keighley and Worth Valley Railway.

He added: “The Star Centre has been hugely popular and with all the new technological developments on-site now, we are hoping its appeal will take off further to become a regional visitor attraction.”