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The New Zealand space industry heats up and it inspires youth to join in

12 April 2018

As the New Zealand space industry heats up, passionate educators at Ara Institute of Canterbury are inspiring youth to join in.

Miranda Satterthwaite is the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Coordinator at Ara Institute of Canterbury and the former high school science teacher knows, more than most, the importance of capturing the imaginations of young people early on.

Satterthwaite says research shows students either “switch on or off” to science and technology in their first two years of high school so it’s important to provide them with interesting, hands-on learning.

“Space is a really good theme that draws students into mechanical and electrical engineering and programming so we’ve developed a series of tasters that are themed in aspects of space or extreme environments so that students can try this hands-on learning for themselves.”


For example, one programme has students experiencing Antarctica’s inhospitable conditions in virtual reality and gaining an understanding of the challenges of exploring and living on the ice.

They use engineering and architectural design thinking principles and 3D printing to build geodesic habitats and energy systems for survival.

Satterthwaite set up the taster programmes four years ago says they’re exactly the sort of thing needed to ensure New Zealand’s space industry has a sustainable future workforce.

The idea is students who enjoy the tasters can move into the three-year Bachelor of Engineering Technology, Bachelor of Agricultural Studies or Bachelor of ICT pathways at Ara following high school – or sign up for other STEM-related studies at university.

“I did some research and NASA’s outreach programmes have lifted African Americans out of average-to-low results in science and mathematics in particular – and have shown over a period of time to really engage them and move them into engineering pathways,” she says.

“I think it works because it is hands-on, project-based learning … and there are role models in NASA. If you see the movie Hidden Figures that’s an example of how they have already got a number of really smart people that have historically worked there.”

Subject choices that start to determine a student’s pathway begin as early as Year 11.

“So unless they are starting to get some determination in subjects like mathematics and science by Year 11, they’ll go wide in a range of subjects and then they won’t have the engineering criteria.”

Taster courses at Ara for Years 9 and 10 include IT Girls, which explores gaming, the internet and robotics, Mission to Mars, Mission to Antarctica and Antarctic Ecobots.

Older students are invited to join courses titled Aerodynamix, Evolocity and Digital Technologies.

Satterthwaite says the STEM programmes at Ara are based “quite heavily” on United States curricula “because it has had a lot of rubber on the road”.

“It has been going for some time and there is data now over a 10-year period that shows adoption into engineering and sciences.”

“We can’t start from scratch; we have to be involved in a world-level industry.”

Satterthwaite is taking 40 students from five different South Island schools to the Kennedy Space Centre in Florida and “space camp” in Huntsville on 5 April for 18 days.

“By the end of the year we should have quite a capture of students that have some understanding of the space industry and the qualification pathways needed to get into it.”

Satterthwaite says Ara has done well to support the programmes so far but there may be collaboration opportunities beyond the technical institute.

“We’re the only region with a vertical pipeline of programmes that lead into the space industry like this – right from Years 9 and 10 through to our degree programmes.

“It would be good to roll out these programmes nationally or to add to the portfolio with support from other tertiaries.

“Students want to be involved in this area. They want to study something that is about the future.

Satterthwaite believes the New Zealand Space Challenge is “coming at the right time” but believes it will “only throw up the very tip of the iceberg of people that want to be involved in the New Zealand’s space industry”.

Ara is running four workshops as part of the challenge on GIS, sensors, robotics and information data analysis.