Exoplanet Explorers, uses virtual reality technology, alongside hands-on demonstrations, to transport pupils out of the classroom and immerse them in the exotic worlds that orbit distant stars.

Pupils given ‘out of this world’ virtual tour of exoplanets

Schoolchildren are being given an ‘out of this world’ opportunity to explore distant worlds discovered and studied by astronomers and climate scientists– all from the comfort of their classroom.

Astrophysics experts from the University of Exeter are pioneering a new way to inspire young students studying science by taking exoplanet research directly into the classroom. Immersive visualisations enable school pupils to take a first-person voyage around a host of different exoplanets.

The scheme, called Exoplanet Explorers, uses virtual reality technology, alongside hands-on demonstrations, to transport pupils out of the classroom and immerse them in the exotic worlds that orbit distant stars. The animations and demonstrations are designed to connect the students with the cutting-edge research helping us understand these exoplanets.

The research team, led by Professor Nathan Mayne, recently visited Pool Academy in Cornwall – where Nathan previously attended – to deliver the workshop.

The virtual reality tour is via a VR documentary – which has been viewed almost 6 million times on YouTube – which takes viewers to a range of planets beyond our solar system, including Wasp-121b, which is so close to its parent star its atmosphere is being `boiled off’, to Kepler-62e potentially entirely covered in a deep ocean and 55 Cancri E, a hellish planet with a surface covered in an ocean of molten rock!

The Exoplanet Explorers project is scheduled to visit several more schools, and an additional VR video – soon to be released – which has already been nominated for a VR award, will be added to the session.

Both films were designed and created by astrophysicists from the University of Exeter, in conjunction with the Cornwall-based animation studio Engine House. The first video was also created in partnership with ‘We The Curious’ in Bristol, and the audio for the second created by Alex Kreplin, researcher at the University of Exeter.

Speaking after the visit, Professor Mayne said: “These immersive digital experiences are being used as part of engagement sessions provided free to schools across the South-West.”

“We talk to Year-11 students about the journey from school to a career in research, and then run sessions including both VR headsets and hands-on demonstrations.”

“It is such an enjoyable experience, and hopefully encourages more pupils to take STEM subjects at university and beyond.”

“What is perhaps even more exciting is that we will soon be embarking on co-developing an educational game with a group of young students. This resource will be added to our sessions and will also be available online, as well as through science communication centres such as the National Space Centre.”

David Buckingham, from Pool Academy said: “For the vast majority of our students, it was the first time that they had experienced Virtual Reality and there was a definite buzz in the air.

“The workshop generated lots of questions about the sheer size of space and how we know what we know about these distant planets and stars. Although there were obvious curriculum links; the session was so much more than that and I strongly believe that it has inspired a number of our students to consider studying physics beyond GCSE.”

Denis Sergeev, a postdoctoral researcher who helped to deliver the workshop, said: “It felt extremely rewarding to talk to the students about our exoplanet research and to see that it sparks their interest.”

Rebecca Crews, part of the widening participation team at Exeter added: “The Exoplanet Explorer session is just one excellent example of how the University of Exeter is committed to working with young people across the South West to allow them to gain an insight into Higher Education. We saw at Pool Academy that the students were thoroughly engaged with the material and has now opened their eyes to another world of opportunities."

Date: 25 September 2019

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