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Three, two, one… lift off! St Benedict’s space camp

| September 11, 2012 | 0 Comments

By Delia Kench

In December 2009, I applied online for a scholarship to Space Camp in Huntsville, Alabama, USA, where the first Mercury rockets1were launched.

Iwas awarded the scholarship and spent five days in June 2010 with 100 other teachers from America and around the world. The aim of the annual camp is to use space as a theme to teach maths and science and to encourage students to learn about space. The camp, flights, accommodation and resources were sponsored by Honeywell2, a company involved in the aeronautical and space industry. At the end of the camp, the representative from Honeywell asked that we as teachers spread the knowledge and skills we had learned to other teachers and students.

During space camp, we simulated two missions: one where I was flight director allocated to mission control and the other where I did a spacewalk to repair the international space station. We launched solid fuel rockets and bottle rockets to learn about launching principles. Astronaut ‘Hoot’ Gibson talked to us about his five missions, and we spent a lot of time in workshops learning how to use the theme of space to teach ‘Martian Maths’3; speed, distance and time calculations as they relate to air traffic controllers; separating DNA; and following the timeline of a shuttle launch. In a session entitled ‘Toys in space’, we learned how to predict how a toy will behave in microgravity; and in ‘Heat shield design’, we learned how the materials on the shuttle need to be designed to withstand excessive heat. In 2011, I searched for an opportunity to pass on all the knowledge that I had gained to our boys on a large scale. It came in the form of a Grade 8 cross-curricular camp.

Making camp more meaningful

Prior to camp, and to make it more meaningful, Grade 8 teachers ensured that the topic of space was covered in each subject and the concept was taught from many different aspects: in history, the Cold War and the space race was brought to life; in drama, students studied the film Apollo 13; and in computer classes, we researched the topic ‘Did man walk on the moon?’. Geography teachers devised lessons on the solar system and music teachers set the boys to work on compositions with space as a theme.

Camp workshops

When we planned the camp format, we chose topics I had experienced in the US and which the boys would find challenging. I added extra workshops. ‘Simulating Hubble repair’ was based on the post-launch modifications made to the famous telescope. One such modification can be compared to replacing a computer circuit board. This has to be done in space with the equivalent of oven gloves and tiny screws. To train for this task, the astronauts spend many hours in a water tank planning their moves and co-ordinating each task. We used this idea and designed a task where the boys had to replace a circuit board on a computer at the bottom of the pool breathing via scuba gear and snorkels.

Another fun task I included in the camp ‘curriculum’ was based on the Apollo 13 mission.4 The three astronauts were living in the lunar module, which was not designed to support the rising carbon dioxide levels. The carbon dioxide filters in the broken command module were square in shape and the openings for filters were round. A solution had to be found to fit the square filter into a round hole to reduce the carbon dioxide levels.

We wanted to share with the boys the experience of rocket launches, but in South Africa we cannot buy pre-packed rocket fuel engines. The boys had to hammer rocket fuel into small tubes like toilet roll holders as well as create the nozzle using clay. We bought about 35 solid rocket kits from Experilab5 and spent every evening assembling the rockets with nose cones and parachutes.

Enthusiastic teaching staff

We were fortunate to have enthusiastic teachers who spent a lot of time on research and development to ensure the camp was successful. Messrs Cimma and Sileno researched and tested the Hubble repair process, calculating the amount of air necessary to run 10 such workshops. Miss Hoggons bought toys, skipping ropes, marbles and tops, Mr Roff studied the mission launch script, and the heat shield design required detailed planning by Messrs Sileno and Brand. Everything had to be carefully controlled and planned to make sure the boys could work safely but still have a great deal of fun.

Lift off!

The camp was an opportunity for the boys to apply knowledge, principles, skills and values consciously to more than one academic discipline simultaneously, addressing academic fragmentation (teaching and learning in silos) and isolation instruction. The activities were designed to teach boys to think and reason, via a curriculum that – because it is contextualised – is a little more relevant to them.

The space camp was an ideal way to teach the critical outcomes that form the foundation of the current national curriculum:

1. identify and solve problems and make decisions using critical and creative thinking

2. work effectively with others as members of a team, group, organisation and community

3. organise and manage themselves and their activities responsibly and effectively

4. collect, analyse, organise and critically evaluate information

5. communicate effectively using visual, symbolic and/or language skills in various modes

6. use science and technology effectively and critically, showing responsibility towards the environment and the health of others

7. demonstrate an understanding of the world as a set of related systems by recognising that problem-solving contexts do not exist in isolation.

We chose to focus primarily on outcomes 1, 2 and 5 – namely problem solving, group work and communication. The boys were encouraged to reflect on their participation in their group and to find ways of becoming more effective as a group member. An inherent part of group work is to communicate effectively. This implies a tolerance and respect for others, so that each boy is given a chance to make a positive contribution to the group. To develop problem-solving skills, the boys were given challenges that were unfamiliar. Time was spent planning, implementing and improving their solutions so that they could develop alternative strategies to problem solving.

Our planning paid off, as can be seen in participants Onkgopotse Sibanyoni and Jaco Boettger’s comments: “We were at the camp to test our ability to work as a team. The most anticipated part was the launching of the rockets… a few flew spectacularly high!” “This camp was the best school trip I’ve ever been on!”


1. See, for example, 8/features/what-was-project-mercury-58.html.

2. Honeywell is a Fortune 100 company that invents and manufactures technologies to address tough challenges linked to global macro trends such as safety, security and energy. (Source:

3. See, for example, pdfs/2012WorkshopDescriptions.pdf.

4. See, for example, a/apollo13.htm.

5. Experilab’s main objective is the promotion of science and technology through the development and supplying of products and services to the community, educators and schools. (Source:

Category: Spring 2012

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