Two Willetton Senior High School teachers with eyes on the sky, are defying the odds and proving to experts that innovation can overcome daunting obstacles. 

Lance Taylor, head of the science learning area and Darren Hamley, coordinator of the school’s gifted and talented program, have joined forces in major astronomy projects that sit comfortably alongside the most innovative projects in South Korea, Norway or Scotland that are world leaders in science for schools.

Taylor has represented Australia at the International NASA Space Camp at Huntsville, Alabama, in the USA, and coordinated visits by students from two schools to the US base and Rocket Centre, connected to the Marshall Space Flight Centre where astronauts train.

He has lectured for almost three decades at Curtin University in WA on Planetary Science and is delighted that some of his former students who attended NASA’s Space Camp in the USA later enrolled in his course at university.

Taylor’s motivation for taking students to NASA was to have them reflect on the extraordinary career possibilities offered in science, while Hamley created lunchtime clubs that included astronomy, to motivate and challenge gifted and talented children.

Meanwhile, educators from around the globe are also delving into space science.

Last year, 40 physicist-educators from across the world met at the Gravity Discovery Centre in Western Australia, to explore how school science can be re-configured to improve the study of astronomy.

David Blair, director of the Australian International Gravitational Research Centre, University of WA, criticised the “obsolete nature” of the science curriculum’s study of the universe. 

Writing for The Conversation, December 2016, he claimed it was one of the factors that led South Korea to outperform Australia in the world rankings of mathematics and science education.

Hamley does not claim to have formal qualifications in astronomy but a burning passion for it, and a willingness to take the curriculum to new levels.

Last year, his students won the Science Teachers Association of WA (STAWA) Talent Search prize for the originality and scope in studying and photographing key elements associated with left and right-handedness of galaxies.

“They studied hundreds of galaxies and the sample size of the research, along with their conclusions, were scientifically significant,” Hamley says. 

Students at the school got permission to operate Australia’s iconic CSIRO Parkes Observatory 64-metre radio telescope, nicknamed ‘the Dish’, through the internet. 

They used the telescope to undertake a world-class study of radio wave pulses from pulsars as they rapidly spun in space and calculated the distance of pulsars from earth to 0.5 per cent of the accepted value. 

Taylor’s students’ visits to NASA gave them an opportunity to fly a simulated space shuttle, learn how space missions are controlled and the history of rocket science.

A highlight was meeting George von Tiesenhausen, born 1914, a retired German-American rocket scientist, who is credited with the first complete design of the Lunar Roving Vehicle.

Von Tiesenhausen, in 2007, was one of the inductees into the USA Space Hall of Fame, and in 2011, was presented with the US Space and Rocket Centre’s Lifetime Achievement Award for education by Neil Armstrong.

Hamley created a purpose-built solar telescope so students could study the sun that is now used by hundreds of students.

He purchased a 44.7 centimetre Newtonian telescope that Hamley said was possibly the biggest one in Australian schools and is popular with amateur telescope users.

Hamley inspired astronomy club students to form “friendship groups”, that use a rotational system in meeting after school or on the weekend at a student’s home to pursue their investigations.

Students can remotely control either of the two SPIRIT robotic telescopes in real time at the University of WA to take images of distant astronomical objects.

Astronomy is perhaps one of the few areas left in science where amateurs can use a robotic telescope to make new discoveries in research and celebrate genuine scientific contributions.

Taylor and Hamley are excited by the school’s new $250 000 robotic telescope to be installed later this year, that will boost interest in astronomy research, taking it to new heights.

It is to be housed in an observatory on the roof of the new science building and will be programmed to take photographs at night using artificial intelligence and automatic scheduling so that staff and students can study the results the next day.

Taylor and Hamley see a bright future for students’ potential careers with the Square Kilometre Array (SKA) multi radio telescope two-phase project to be built in Western Australia and South Africa, with construction commencing in 2018.

The core site is located at the Murchison Radio-astronomy Observatory at Mileura Station near Boolardy in WA, 315 kilometres north-east of Geraldton.

David Luchetti, SKA’s project director, described the multi-million dollar transformative project as a “major scientific breakthrough” and it is certain to open new job opportunities for students in WA studying astronomy.

Next generation science in schools looks bright with projects like the Victoria Space Science Education Centre (VSSEC) established by the Victorian Government in the grounds of Strathmore secondary college, offering high quality space programs like Mission to Mars

Only one girl is enrolled in the astronomy program at present, but Taylor and Hamley say the new robotics telescope should create exciting opportunities to address the gender imbalance.

It seems passion and purpose make productive partners.