Trip to the House of Commons

If you had told me this time last year that we would be bringing children to the House of Commons, I wouldn’t have believed you. Yet another fantastic experience for the Rode Heath pupils and all because of our Out of this World project. We had been invited to attend a Mission X event by Heather MacRae of Venture Thinking, who runs the Train Like An Astronaut programme on behalf of the UK Space Agency. The aim of the event was to meet and listen to special guests from the world of sports, science and space and for schools to demonstrate the various Train Like An Astronaut activities they have been involved in.

All attendees had been encouraged to set up a meeting with their local MP and we had no problem persuading Fiona Bruce to meet us in the Westminster Hall. Four lucky children were chosen to make the trip with Clare Pheasey and myself: Hermione Pugh, Millie Leese, Heidi Pheasey and Pierce Harvey. They were all extremely excited and couldn’t wait to arrive.

Despite stopping at every station, the train journey seemed to whizz by. The children were most amused by the ‘speaking WC’ which advised them to avoid flushing bizarre items such as unpaid bills, an ex’s jumper, hopes and dreams and goldfish down the toilet!

A short taxi ride in a large black cab – which conveniently took six people – and a huge number of photographs of the London sights later (including the lions in Trafalgar Square) we arrived outside the Houses of Parliament. The sun was shining brightly and we were looking forward to the day ahead. Surprisingly, there was no queue and it didn’t take long to get through security – apart from the fact that both Clare Pheasey and I had to be scanned after causing the detector to go off. To be honest I was actually surprised that we were allowed in at all, as we had so many bags and pieces of technical equipment – particularly Clare Pheasey, who was carrying a very large, unwieldy bag containing a jump mat and starting gates.

We had arranged to meet Fiona Bruce in Westminster Hall and shortly after 2pm she arrived with her Parliamentary Manager, Johnny Munro. She was very interested in our Out of this World project and took time to look at the children’s space passports before orchestrating a number of photographs. She then asked the children if they would like to visit the Gallery to view the parliamentary business in the Chamber. Of course, their answer was in the affirmative. Hermione in particular was transfixed by the proceedings, despite the fact that the majority of the green benches were empty. She was able to give an excellent explanation of what was going on and who was sitting where. She even identified the mace! I was very impressed by her knowledge.

Following this brief insight into politics, Fiona took us through various corridors until we reached an outside restaurant area, where the MPs eat. This had a fantastic view overlooking the River Thames with Lambeth palace in the background on one side and the London Eye and Westminster Bridge on the other – another photo opportunity, obviously!

It was now time to meet our fellow delegates for the Fit for Space session, so we made our way back to the Westminster Hall. What a wonderful structure this is: the oldest building on the Parliamentary estate. If you look at the floor you notice many brass plaques detailing major events in the Hall’s history such as the trial of William Wallace in 1305; the coronation banquet of Henry VIII in 1509 and Elizabeth I in 1559 and where Winston Churchill lay in state in 1965.

I found it quite surreal to think that I was actually standing in the exact places where these famous icons had once stood.

The afternoon started with presentations from various speakers including Chrissie Wellington MBE, who is the unbeaten Iron Man champion. For those of us who are unaware of this accolade, this is a series of long-distance triathlon races organized by the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) consisting of a 2.4-mile (3.86 km) swim, a 112-mile (180.25 km) bicycle ride and a marathon 26.2-mile (42.2 km) run, raced in that order and without a break. It is widely considered one of the most difficult one-day sporting events in the world. Chrissie (four times World Iron Man champion) managed to achieve all this in a World Record breaking time of 8 hours, 18 minutes 13 seconds.

As you might expect, Chrissie gave a very inspirational talk where she encouraged the school children to ‘Reach for the Stars’ and pursue their dreams. One of her main messages was not to be afraid to be different and to be prepared to work outside your comfort zone – sound advice indeed!

She was followed by Dr Sheila Kanani, also known as Saturn Sheila, who works for the Royal Astronomical Society and is obviously very passionate about anything and everything to do with Space. She gave us a whistle stop tour of her favourite top ten things about the Universe, at break neck speed – what an amazing amount of information she was able to pack into ten minutes.

The second half of the session was devoted to the school children who ranged from primary to secondary age. There were contributions from six schools, all taking an active part in the Mission X programme. Everyone spoke very eloquently and it was impressive to hear about the wide variety of activities that are being carried out. Some of the children were very knowledgeable about the topic of Space – even challenging the adults. It was great to see so much valuable learning taking place.

Our own Rode Heath children demonstrated some of the sophisticated equipment that we had been able to use at our own Mission X launch at MMU back in January where we tested lung capacity, and core strength: Handgrip Dynamometers and Peak Expiratory Flow Metres. Millie Leese from Rode Heath then talked about how aspirational her visit to the University had been, to the extent that her goal is now to be the first member of her immediate family to gain a degree. Indeed, to enable more schools to benefit from the MMU experience, Clare and I have recently applied for a Royal Society grant to develop a collection of scientific and educational resources to allow precise data to be collected and analysed by schools participating in the Mission X scheme.

It was soon apparent that a number of the schools present have been involved with Mission X since its inception five years ago. It was wonderful to hear how many of them are now including the programme in their curriculum for all year groups, not just Year 5. Not only that, but due to the impact that Space can have on learning, schools are realising that they can use Mission X as a stepping stone to promoting and increasing the teaching of STEM subjects school wide.

And, with Tim Peake ready to begin his mission to the ISS in November, this is perfect timing to encourage all schools to follow this lead.

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