UK Space Agency by Jeremy Curtis

Chapter 20 of the UKSDC book which is available on Amazon.

UK Space Agency Education, Skills And Outreach

Using space to inspire learning. Helping to build a skilled workforce.

By Jeremy Curtis

The UK Space Agency’s education, skills and outreach strategy addresses two distinct, though related, issues:

  1. Space has demonstrated a remarkable power to inspire widespread interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) and provides exciting contexts for the teaching of a range of subjects.
  2. Growth of the space sector is hampered by the scarcity of graduates and technicians with relevant qualifications.

The first of these presents an opportunity to use space for education and the second is a problem that can be addressed by using education for space.

These two equally important aspects are intimately related since harnessing space to improve the take-up of STEM subjects for the benefit of the United Kingdom (UK) economy will have corresponding benefits for the space sector by increasing the potential pool of graduates and technicians.

The UK Space Agency helps sponsor the UK Space Design Competition (SDC) as it provides an environment that addresses both goals. It gives participants the chance to experience being in a simulated engineering company and excites them about space sciences and engineering.

The main features of the Agency’s strategy are to:

  • understand and address the skills needs of the UK space industry,
  • develop plans to improve the provision of advice on space-related careers,
  • encourage and support the use of space as an inspiring context for learning across all age groups and
  • develop wider outreach programmes to improve awareness of and engagement with the UK’s space programme.

Space for Education


There is a widely recognised problem in encouraging interest in STEM subjects at school, college and at university level. Some recent improvements have been made, for example, in numbers of students studying mathematics at A level, but there is still much that needs to be done (National Audit Office, 2010).

Several reviews (Spencer and Hulbert, 2006) and much anecdotal evidence demonstrate that few subjects have as much impact as space to inspire interest in the young. A 2009 survey (Sky Television) demonstrated that nine per cent of children now want to become an astronaut (fourth, after ‘famous footballer’, ‘famous pop star’ and ‘famous actor’), which is up from four per cent (ninth) 25 years ago. Many students have entered the UK SDC and changed their future college plans to engineering fields. Even if they have not changed their career choice, many plan to pursue their interest in space sciences.

Space provides a medium to support education across all age groups in both technical and non-technical subjects. The UK SDC harnesses students’ enthusiasm in two age groups: students in Years 7-9 in small one-day events held throughout the UK, and both regional and national finals for students in Years 10-13. The UK Space Agency education strategy aims to maximise the benefit and impact of space in education by optimising the ‘space offer’ to the needs of the education system (taking account of regional variations as appropriate). The UK SDC shows teachers, educators and students how space can be used to learn about many different subjects including design, psychology, communication and management as well as STEM.


Education for Space


The UK space sector now employs about 30,000 people and has an annual turnover of over £9bn (UK Space Agency, 2012). It supports a total of about 100,000 workers. It is one of the most highly skilled sectors of the economy; almost 80 per cent of workers have a degree and output per worker is three times the national average. The sector continues to grow (7.8 per cent per annum over the last two years, despite the difficult economic conditions) and is expected to grow to £19bn by 2020, and support an additional, 100,000 jobs by 2030 (Space IGS, 2013).

Growth will be driven by the space industry’s unique capacity to help address the global threat of climate change, pressure on natural resources, a growing world population and violent conflict. As explained in the UK Civil Space Strategy 2012-1 The future wealth of the UK will be dependent on developing a highly skilled technical workforce.’

In order to address this need, the UK Civil Space Strategy states that we will:

  • work with partners to deliver the skilled staff that industry needs for growth and promote careers in the space industry,
  • work with the Research Councils to maintain the UK’s world-leading space research community and
  • work with space education and advocacy groups to tell the exciting story of the UK space programme and use it as a tool to encourage children to take up and excel at STEM subjects.

To meet overall government objectives, barriers to growth of the space sector must be overcome. Thus in order to counter the space industry’s difficulties in securing sufficient, appropriately-educated staff, the UK Space Agency education strategy aims to increase the numbers and improve the quality of individuals entering the workforce.

The UK SDC has already inspired many students to enter the space industry’s workforce or to choose Higher Education courses that will enable them to do so in the future. While no numbers can be predicted, there are several examples of this. Joseph Dudley stated in 2013 that,

“The space competition changed my life. I didn’t know what I wanted to do. During the competition it struck me that being an engineer is what I wanted. I am now in my second year studying at Imperial College London.”

Lindsay Berkenpas writes,

“You completely altered the course of my life. Before entering the competitions (regional and finals), I would have gone into physical therapy. After the competition I ended up going into engineering.”

Lindsay is now a project engineer at 3M.

The competition also gives high-calibre students insight into all that is necessary to make any business more effective and competitive, because it is an industry simulation. The students learn vital skills such as teamwork, working to deadlines and communication, as well as gaining more technical information about space-related subjects.




In order to deliver these aims, and taking account of the recommendations of the Space Innovation and Growth Strategy, the UK Space Agency will work with its partners in government, industry and elsewhere. As part of this we will:

  • encourage and support the use of space as an inspiring context for learning across all age groups (which is why we sponsor the UK SDC through the Space For All grant programme),
  • engage pupils in STEM through the use of space and maintain and develop the interest of the most enthusiastic students by providing suitable opportunities, for example by working with charitable organisations such as the Space Science & Engineering Foundation that sponsors the UK SDC and
  • develop and implement wider outreach programmes to improve awareness and engagement with the UK’s space programme, including through the UK SDC.

Analysis: The Skills Pipeline

The Agency has interests in educational interventions at all ages. From secondary education onwards it makes the following observations:


Secondary (Years 7-9)


Although all UK students in this age group study science, it is likely that most will have decided by this stage whether they see themselves following a STEM-related career. A few will already have a strong interest in space.

Key aims therefore should be to maintain an interest in STEM among all students and to help those with a strong interest in space by giving them access to good space-related learning resources and information regarding role models.

This may be achieved through assistance to teachers who want to use space in teaching, promotion of the value of space in learning and providing access to materials. There should also be direct contact with the most enthusiastic pupils through special activities such as competitions, conferences and other events.

The UK SDC has recently introduced a series of ‘micro’ competitions for 11 to 14 year-olds specifically to stimulate interest in space and provide access to learning materials and role models.


Secondary (GCSE, Years 10-11)


As with the previous age group, all students study science, but some choose to take individual science GCSEs (in biology, chemistry and physics). At this stage, students are encouraged to consider future career options in more depth.

Much the same approach applies as before, but there is a greater opportunity to assist the most enthusiastic pupils to maintain their interest in STEM subjects, and specifically space. This may be achieved through space camps, space schools and various classroom activities. Some learners in this age group could maintain their interest in space by moving from the micro competitions of the UK SDC to the regional competitions and the UK finals.


Secondary (A-level, Years 12-13)


This is the first point at which students studying STEM subjects have chosen to do so. It is therefore especially important to provide challenging resources to these students in order to maintain their interest. J. Monteiro teaches in an underprivileged area of south London and says,

“Before the competition I had a difficult time in encouraging interest in science topics. After the national finals I never had that problem again. The students kept me busy trying to answer their questions. If I was astonished by their new interest in school and science, I must say the students were no less amazed at finding other students who were willing to spend a whole weekend working on a project at the UK SDC.”

Similar interventions as at younger age ranges are possible, but there is now a greater possibility of more exciting challenges, such as involvement in hardware projects. The smaller number of STEM students at this level should allow for the possibility of a deeper engagement with those demonstrating an interest in space. This may also involve space camps and space schools and activities such as the UK SDC.


Higher education


By this stage most students will have chosen the approximate direction of their careers. There will be little point in devoting large resources across the board, other than to encourage all students to maintain some engagement with STEM in general, and space in particular. However, there is a need to ensure that those with a potential interest in a career in the space sector should be aware of the possibilities. It is also important that those with the greatest interest do not feel abandoned simply because they are expected to be sufficiently self-motivated not to need any help. Many of the volunteers at the regional competitions and finals of the UK SDC are students with a potential interest in careers in the space sector. They give up their time because they are keen to get involved with space-centred projects and because they want to pass on their enthusiasm and skill. Some of these are students who took part in the competition while at school, were inspired to take a STEM-related course at university and are now engaged in undergraduate or post-graduate study.


Informal education


There are many informal space education activities across the UK. The UK Space Agency’s main role is to encourage and promote the best of these. A funding scheme, ‘Space for All’, has been set up to facilitate this and we are pleased to help to support the UK SDC via this scheme.




This article explains the rationale and goals of the UK Space Agency’s Education, Skills and Outreach Strategy and demonstrates how the UK SDC supports its aims. As a worthwhile, interesting and enjoyable project we are delighted to support this activity, which fosters such interest in and excitement about space in our young people.





National Audit Office (2010) Educating the next generation of scientists

Sky Television (2009) Survey carried out sampling 3,000 children by asking their parents what they wanted to do when they grow up

Space IGS (2013) UK Space Innovation and Growth Strategy 2014-2030: Space Growth Action Plan

Spencer and Hulbert (2006) The Education and Skills Case for Space

UK Space Agency (2012) The Size and Health of the UK Space Industry