Space Exploration Ignites a Passion for Science in Students

Blog Post created by teachontarioteam on Nov 9, 2015

astronauts taking sample.jpgIn this installment of TeachOntario Talks, we are profiling and celebrating the second of three winners of this year's OTIP Teaching Award for Excellence sponsored by the Ontario Teachers Insurance Plan (OTIP) and the Ontario Teachers' Federation (OTF). Dr. Jim Magwood,  from Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa, is the secondary category winner.


How do you get secondary students with differing interests and learning styles to get excited about math, physics, chemistry, geology and biology? You send them to space, of course!


That has been the strategy for Dr. Jim Magwood, a chemistry and science teacher at Lisgar Collegiate Institute in Ottawa. As a chemistry teacher, Magwood has been known to ignite a lasting love of science in his students.


fun chemistry.jpg“Dr. Magwood is an exceptional teacher,” says Susan Hewitt, the Head of Science at Lisgar. “In class, he’s able to challenge our most gifted students, while also inspiring applied level students to reach farther than they ever thought they could.”


But it is what he does outside of the classroom that shows his true dedication as an educator.


For the past 15 years, Magwood has been the teacher supervisor of the Ottawa Carleton Educational Space Simulation (OCESS), a non-profit organization that promotes a greater understanding of space exploration and space research in students. Each year Magwood dedicates hundreds of hours and personal resources to the program.


What is the Ottawa Carleton Educational Space Simulation?


“The OCESS is a student-run group of anywhere from twenty-five to fifty students each year,” says Magwood. “They do two things: they try to further their own understanding of the exploration of space and space science, and they try to disseminate this knowledge to other students through a series of science educational outreach presentations.”


The OCESS, or "SpaceSim" to the students, is a club open to high school students across the Ottawa-Carleton region. It brings together students with a wide range of interests and abilities to run an elaborate space exploration simulation culminating in a 120-hour “mission.”



The mission is no small feat. A spacecraft is built by the students and is complete with bunks for sleeping, chemical toilets, a kitchen, complicated machinery, lab equipment, space suits, a bank of computers and anything else an astronaut needs in space.


The students divide themselves into groups. One group of six is the astronaut group. The astronauts learn to use advanced flight software similar to that of NASA astronauts.  They do the bulk of their work during the actual mission, as they spend the entire 120 hours aboard a spacecraft, taking and analyzing planetary samples, making complicated repairs in space gear, and trying to solve a myriad of problems sent their way, like water shortages, hull breaches, and engine malfunctions. Before it starts, the location and almost all aspects of the mission are kept secret from the astronauts. See TVO's video profile of Dr. Magwood at right.


Another group is Mission Control. Mission Control is a representation of a base on earth, like Houston in the movies. The astronauts defer to Mission Control for permission to undergo various tasks and pass along information of critical importance. Mission Control has direct authority over the parameters of the mission objectives.


simulators cause asteroid attack.jpgThe final group of students act as the simulators. The simulators are treated as if they don't exist by both the astronauts and Mission Control. The simulators create the events and environments that the astronauts experience. They spend a large portion of the school year crafting a makeshift planetary surface, and have the ability to tamper with the flight software to simulate events meant to test the astronauts' ability to adapt and problem solve.


Everything from the ship to the planetary surface is built by the students under Magwood’s supervision. The group meets on Fridays and Magwood is often there for 7 hours after school helping students with complicated math equations or even consulting on the best materials to build stalagmites. Magwood wrote the complex flight simulation software used by the group and often brings his own tools to help in the building. He also collects and donates old, used computer equipment from which the group can scavenge parts.


Learning for All


It might seem that only students with a demonstrated scientific acumen would join a club requiring a keen understanding of biology, chemistry, physics and math. But, according to Magwood, that is not the case.


mission control prepares for launch.jpg“Club members are students who are interested in science and interested in space,” says Magwood. “But we also have students interested in performance arts and in drawing and construction. There’s a huge range of interests and skills. We’ve got all sorts of students.  People who are homeschooled, people who are in private schools, anybody who is a student and is in any way interested in what we’re doing can join up.”


And, Magwood says, it’s amazing how quickly students realize they know more than they think they do. “They all work really hard, they all really stretch their brains and they all pull stuff together,” he says. “They’ll be bringing in chemistry, physics, earth science and space science and picking the little bits of things that they've learned through the years and putting them together—sometimes on the fly.”


The club celebrates diversity. Over the years several LGBT students and even non-binary students have found a home at OCESS. Kids who would not necessarily feel comfortable trying out for school teams or joining the school council, find the opportunity to shine and lead others at OCESS.


“Dr. Magwood cultivates a space where people who don’t fit in, do fit in,” says Samuel Baltz, one of Magwood’s former students. “SpaceSim is a place where everyone is welcome every Friday night, and for some teenagers that welcoming space is the single most important constant in their lives.”


Student Opportunities to Share Their Learning


In addition to completing a 120-hour mission, the students harness their learning and do outreach to elementary schools and high schools through space science workshops and planetarium presentations (they own a StarLab © portable planetarium). They also run a space science contest open to all grade 9 and 10 students in the region. Dr. Magwood supervises and helps the students polish their presentations.


Life-Long Impact


The students who have taken part in Spacesim laud Dr. Magwood for giving them a once in a lifetime opportunity that will help them exponentially in the years to come.


Samuel Baltz moved on to astrophysics at the University of Toronto and became the president of the university’s space society and the director of a federal space advocacy not-for-profit.


"I do these things because of Spacesim,” he says. “Dr. Magwood did not simply inspire me, he concretely shaped who I am today.”




Magwood describes the spacecraft and planetary surface (Above) .


Questions? Ideas? Comments? Ontario educators can register on TeachOntario and join in more in-depth conversation about this school in Share under: TeachOntario Talks Discussions: Space Exploration Ignites a Passion for Science in Students