Inspiring Children…

This month (which has been a properly EXTRAORDINARY month) I presented a paper at the International Astronautical Conference in Cape Town titled:

Artists & Scientists – Experimenting Together:
Inspiring primary school children about space and science using art and play

It tells the story of the ride we’ve been on so far with the Unlimited Space Agency and what our plans are for the future and I wondered if some of you might be interested. So here follows the words and some of the pictures that made up my presentation. Any comments, ideas or responses very happily received in the comments below…

We’d like to thank Ecclesiastical Insurance for their generous help and support in meeting the costs of my trip to IAC 2011. We really wouldn’t have been able to take up this prestigious invitation otherwise.

The focus of Unlimited Theatre’s work in recent years has been to inspire children and young people about science. Their developing reputation as pioneers in this field led to a commission in 2009 from the world renowned Polka Theatre in London to make a play ”to inspire children about science”. Mission To Mars was written in close consultation with Dr Gail Iles (an ESA astronaut instructor who the company members trained with at the EAC as part of their research) and Dr Andrew Newsam (of the Astrophysics Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores University and Director of the National Schools’ Observatory Project). The play ran in London for five weeks in 2010 before going on a tour of the UK visiting major theatres and attracting many thousands of children, their parents, teachers and carers. To accompany the play Unlimited also produced a live-action role playing game at the National Theatre for families to play set on an earth orbiting space station and an extraordinary six week Alternate Reality Adventure for 20 primary schools using game design, storytelling and secure social networking websites for each school for all ”in game communications”. In the process the Unlimited Space Agency has been established and the company has won a series of prestigious awards including the Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Achievement in Space Education & Outreach. Throughout the project Unlimited conducted in depth evaluation gathering evidence and feedback from participants, children, parents and teachers and the response has been overwhelmingly positive. This paper presents a compelling case study of how artists and scientists can work together to reach and inspire the scientists of the future at a crucial stage in their education experience.


Hello. I’m Jon . I’m the Creative Director of Unlimited Theatre and the Director of Human Space Flight Operations for the Unlimited Space Agency.

This ‘paper’ is likely to be a bit different from the majority of those included for this conference. I’m a director and a writer for theatre rather an academic and I’m aware that I’ve been invited to present this paper “orally”. So this is really a ‘script’ for a performance that I’ll be giving on Friday 7th October at the Cape Town International Convention Centre. A script which I’ll probably deviate from at times and respond to the unique event, moment, breath in that room in the future (as I write this) or past (as you read). The information will be the same but the experience will be quite different.

I feel it’s important to recognise that difference here because what this paper is most interested in describing and promoting, is the high value and impact of the arts (in particular the performing arts) in inspiring and educating children. Further than that, the particular value and impact of encouraging an active engagement with these activities. One in which the participants have genuine agency, with the ability to influence decisions, stories and outcomes. Basically – the power of art, play and games to inspire engagement and learning. Something that we at Unlimited believe in passionately. Because we experience it at work every day.


Formed in Leeds (UK) in 1997, Unlimited is what happens when the artists Clare Duffy, Chris Thorpe and myself make new work together. Our work is always co-created with equal partnership in the creative process and in collaboration with an expanding pool of associate artists, scientists, technologists and educators. At the heart of our work is a sincere engagement with our audiences, both in the process and moment of (co)creation.

We are storytellers.

Our stories are always for live performance, most often happening in theatres but also in public spaces and outdoors. Increasingly however they are being made with a ‘cross-platform curiosity’ – that is, with a desire to make and distribute them in other places (e.g. for broadcast and the internet) but still and always with an emphasis on the ‘liveness’ of that experience for our audiences.

In recent years Unlimited has developed a dedicated strand of work for younger audiences and families focussed on communicating and interrogating developments in science particularly in quantum physics and most recently – space exploration.


In 2009, we were commissioned by the Polka Theatre in London to create a new play for children – a show with the ambition of “inspiring children aged 7-11 about science”. A show that we quickly decided could be the SciFi show that we’d always wanted to make – because everyone loves Space, don’t they? And Space is (as you all know) a great way to get people (not just the children but also the parents, carers and teachers who will accompany those children) engaged with the science.

Photos by Max Alexander

Set in 2035 Mission To Mars is a “Sci-Fact Adventure” telling the story of Gail & Stefan, the astronauts chosen to be the first humans to go to Mars. Based on the real science of planned Mars Missions, the show communicates key science information about gravity, space technologies and the scale of the universe whilst primarily telling an exciting and emotional story of daring and adventure. There are emergencies, challenges to authority and extreme bravery. All of the characters are scientists. Most of the characters die. And Mission To Mars has been a massive success running for 5 weeks in London at the Polka children’s theatre before touring to major regional theatres across the UK being seen by more than 7000 people.

“Unlimited have been pioneers in combining theatre and science, fearlessly going where few other companies have gone before in exploring the metaphysical and everyday impact of scientific advances on our lives… Mission To Mars is great fun and if there’s a sudden interest in science in the coming years among the children of south-west London and beyond, it may well be traced back to Unlimited’s show for seven to 11-year-olds.” The Guardian, UK newspaper

When we were writing the play, we worked in close consultation with two scientists in particular, Dr Andy Newsam (of the Astrophysics Research Institute at Liverpool John Moores University and the Director of the National Schools’ Observatory Project) and Dr Gail Iles (a condensed matter physicist and Astronaut Instructor with the European Space Agency).

Part of our research involved us going to the European Astronaut Centre in Cologne and training for three days as astronauts with Dr Iles, including a session with Britain’s only current astronaut Tim Peake.

l-r: Jon Spooner, Dr Gail Iles, Major Tim Peake, Chris Thorpe, Clare Duffy in the Training Hall at EAC, Cologne

Which was an incredibly exciting thing to do – and that sense of massive excitement and genuine participation was one that we wanted to pass on to some of the children who were going to come and see the show. And so, we made a series of “Satellite” projects to accompany (orbit) the show.

We invited Dr Iles to join us for one day at the Crucible Theatre in Sheffield for a “Pop Up Date”. We spent our time together talking and finding out more about Gail’s life and work and at the end of the day she was on stage, starring in her own (new) show that we had written for and improvised with her.

It was funny, moving, insightful, inspiring and a very special experience for everyone there:

“I thought Gail was brilliant and is such an inspiring woman. It was like being with a living portrait. I loved it.” audience member, Sheffield.

Responding to a commission from game design agency Hide&Seek, we created Space Camp – part of UNSA’s programme to identify potential future UNSA cadets: a game for families to play where they have to work as a team to deal with a simulation of an emergency on UNSA’s Earth Orbiting Space Station. Space Camp is played in public spaces that we transform into our space station. So far missions have been undertaken in the foyer of the National Theatre in London (July 2010), outdoors at the Green Man music festival in Wales (Aug 2011) and in the galleries of the London Science Museum (Oct 2011) among others. Extra points are awarded for agents dressed ready for space travel.

photos at London Science Museum by Ed Collier

We organised a series of conversations titled Mars: How Far Away Is It? where children and their carers could stay behind after the show and meet Dr Andy, Dr Gail and other guests including the science writer and film director Dr Chris Riley. Children could ask any question about space and science and have it answered. Jon Lloyd, the director at Polka Theatre, described the event there as “one of the best evenings I’ve had in my time here”.

Special Event at West Yorkshire Playhouse, Leeds pic: Matt Hargraves

Our most dedicated offer to children and teachers in a formal education environment, was The Astronautical Challenge.

Created in partnership with our long term creative collaborators at Coney and technology company Radiowaves (who provide safe, secure social networking solutions for schools) The Astronautical Challenge is an adventure for Key Stage 2 (ages 7-11) teachers to play with their classes in school that aims to, wholeheartedly, inspire the next Einstein or Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

We knew from previous work in this area that there are well documented concerns that the teaching of science in UK schools is failing to inspire pupils with a low percentage choosing to study scientific subjects at a higher level – particularly girls.

Teachers had also talked to us about their concerns that children were lacking positive role models in scientific fields and didn’t understand how science applied to their own lives let alone the fact that there are increasingly fantastic career opportunities available in this field.

The Astronautical Challenge aims to make children (particularly girls) passionate about science, to imagine (dream) themselves working in ways they never have before and set them on their way to realising their potential to make those dreams happen.

“It was the most exciting thing I’ve done in teaching for a long time! The challenges certainly created enthusiasm and motivation for learning. The children were absolutely captivated and most didn’t want the project to end.” Jane Gibb, teacher at Flore CE Primary School, Northampton

Both Unlimited and our co-creators Coney hold a passionate belief in the power of play and immersive storytelling to create heightened engagement and unlock creative potential. This belief is born out of many years of experience (and success) in creating inspiring programmes for primary school children and teachers.

The Astronautical Challenge used the Unlimited Space Agency and the characters from Mission To Mars to create a new adventure that would take place over 6 episodes, each with an associated science related challenge. An adventure in which the children are the main characters.

Before the adventure begins in class with the children, we invite the participating teachers to an Inset Day where we run sections of the adventure with them – they’re going to be the ones in charge of running the adventure back in class so it’s important that they’ve had the experience themselves.

Each teacher chooses a timescale that suits them to run the adventure over – most choose to run one episode a week over a half term but there is also the flexibility in structure to run the entire adventure over the course of one intensive week.

When they’re ready to begin the class is sent a mysterious package containing a letter, a memory stick and a sweet in a foil wrapper (the sweet will play a part in the finale of the adventure). They insert the memory stick into a computer and a video message plays from UNSA’s Chief Recruiting Office Dr Alice Kuiper. She explains to the class that they have been identified as potential recruits to be “Mission Control” on a “real life Mission To Mars training mission.” and encourages them to persuade their teacher that they should take part in this competition – The Astronautical Challenge.

Having persuaded their teacher (perhaps using the sweet as a bribe), the class have to sign up to their own dedicated and bespoke website where all of the “in game communications” take place.

And now the adventure can really begin… each class is assigned two young, trainee astronauts Gail and Stefan who will guide and mentor them in scientific and personal challenges. The teachers lead the class through the episodes, each of which has specific challenges designed to meet each individual teacher’s needs. The story and challenges are responsive and bespoke to the class and the strengths and weaknesses of the individual children. Challenges involve groups of pupils working together to solve problems and make things work, researching and experimenting in the classroom to test and prove their theories. They communicate with Mission Control by uploading their work as written, audio or video reports and stories onto the Radiowaves platform, asking questions and solving the challenges. A dedicated Operator is the teachers’ primary point of contact and they write and post responses to the class in character as Gail, Stefan or the Agency as is appropriate.

At the end of Episode 3, the class have successfully completed all the challenges (including a recreation and report of the Galileo “hammer vs feather” experiment and a challenge to create a moving, human model of the solar system in their playground) and therefore won the prize of being Mission Control! Gail and Stefan thank them and arrange to communicate with them again when they’ve arrived at their training camp.

But when the class log in at the agreed time, Gail & Stefan aren’t there. At this point the headteacher comes into the classroom and has one of those whispered conversations with the class teacher, who then has to explain to their class that something has gone wrong. The Agency have been in touch to say that Gail & Stefan have gone missing, that the class shouldn’t worry as they’re sure they’ll find them soon but they’re sorry – we’ll have to end the adventure now.

There is, of course, disappointment and some concern. But then… about 20 minutes later and because the class has stayed logged in to their site, a message comes in from Gail & Stefan. They are lost, UNSA has left them and they’re not sure if they can trust the Agency so they need the class’ help to work out where in the world they are and how to escape home.

The next episodes involve them using information and clues to work out where Gail and Stefan are (Kazakhstan, it turns out), providing medical advice and emotional support when Stefan injures himself and spends a night with a fever (there’s an experiment here using baked potatoes, thermometers and different materials to work out which material has the best heat retention properties) and finally directing the pilot of a rescue chopper to Gail & Stefan’s location in a live phone call finale with UNSA’s Director culminating in much whooping and cheering as Gail & Stefan are airlifted to safety.

The adventure concludes with the class making a visit to the theatre to see Mission To Mars, where they see the adult versions of the characters finally making their flight into space, and get to meet the actors afterwards who have been briefed on each class’ experience.

Teachers and children alike gave overwhelmingly positive feedback to the experience…

“I loved the whole programme. It made science exciting and fun and the lesson plans were a fantastic help. The children were extremely motivated by the whole thing, every aspect excited them and they were engrossed in the characters created and the sense of competition.” Teacher, Holy Trinity Primary London

“Definite improvement in motivation for science, particularly for the girls. The digital media skills showed progress, as well as highlighting issues with our school network! Definitely helped with teamwork in the class, although that is still far from perfect!” Teacher, Deans Hanger Primary Northampton

The independent evaluation we commissioned from education expert Juliet Desailly backed up the responses we received from the teachers. She reported a clear increase in engagement with learning within the curriculum both in Science:

“All the science tasks were found to be highly successful. Most teachers reported that children were now much more positive in their reactions towards science. They were excited by the ideas being investigated and were looking forward to more science topics and seeing relevance in their science work.”

and also in PSHE (Personal, Social and Health Education):

All found the groupings, teamwork and motivation extremely high.”

In her report Juliet also found that there was a very significant engagement beyond the classroom and that many children engaged with the project at home, working in their own time:

“Children were motivated to learn by their involvement with the characters and desire to help them. The competitive element and the stimulus of doing their best for Gail and Stefan meant that the children themselves were striving to improve their work and were often not satisfied with their results and wanted to improve them. Instead of a ‘that will do’ attitude to their work several teachers reported that children wanted to spend extra time improving their submissions to UNSA (this is one of the reasons that the activities ended up taking more time than anticipated)”

The significance of this is reinforced by the Directors at Radiowaves who, unprompted, reported that they had never experienced this level of engagement out of school hours. It’s also notable that this heightened engagement was not limited to the children

Teachers introduced their own twists to the episodes and added to the drama e.g. by keeping the mission ‘secret’ from the rest of the school until the rescue mission, when children were praised in assembly for their efforts.”

In summary Juliet Desailly reported that:

“All the teachers thoroughly enjoyed participating in the project, had been impressed by the children’s learning, in particular in science, group working, research and presentation skills and the project’s ability to motivate learning.”

Creating and delivering projects with this level of interaction, responsiveness, agency is a lot of work but, as testified above, the results are extra ordinary.

And in honesty, the project as a whole has surpassed any of our own expectations. Especially because it wasn’t always easy to persuade all of our partners to travel with us in making and delivering these projects, crossing frontiers that were new for many of them, and for us. And sometimes we had to simply stride out on our own into that uncharted territory. And thankfully (as we had hoped!) all that work, effort, creativity, partnership and agency has been recognised as a great success…

In 2011 we were awarded the National Charity Award in the Arts, Culture & Heritage category for The Astronautical Challenge – one of the most prestigious accolades in our sector – and we’re already, very positively, exploring the potential for how to scale that particular project and distribute it across digital platforms to include a version for families as well as schools.

Mission To Mars was recently awarded the Sir Arthur Clarke Award for Achievement in Space Education & Outreach, presented by the Space Education Trust and the British Interplanetary Society at the 2011 UK Space Conference.

Most recently we’ve been shortlisted for our work with Dr Iles for the UKRC WISE Champion Award for organisations “who have taken steps to actively address the WISE mission to encourage girls and young women in to STEM education and related careers.” <editor note: on 19th October 2011 Unlimited and Dr Iles were announced as winners of the award which was presented by HRH The Princess Royal in London>


All of which brings us to the point at which we’re about to cross our next, new frontier. Having accidentally made our fictional Space Agency increasingly real, having won audience and critical acclaim, having proven the effectiveness of the project’s educational ambitions through the evaluation that we commissioned and the projects validated through a range of prestigious awards… it is becoming easier for us to gather new partners to travel with us.

The next iteration of this project, of the Unlimited Space Agency’s mission “to inspire the next generation of scientists and space explorers” will be, we intend, a massive multiplayer online game. A story-driven, mission based, online home for UNSA and its agents where children and their parents, carers or teachers can sign up, become an agent, be set missions, play games, team up with other agents, compete against other agencies, follow the stories of star recruits and graduate (level up) through an Academy style system.

The first stage of this development is already planned with creative partners on board, funding applications submitted and patrons and investors being courted. Before the end of 2012 we hope to have launched a digital visualisation (playground) of UNSA’s base and laboratories where children can sign up to the Agency, create a bespoke avatar and explore this new world. The main offer will be to play a “casual game” based on the game design for Space Camp, in which they are launched to UNSA’s earth orbiting space station where they have to complete a series of science based challenges and puzzles.

Our intention is that we will continue to work with many other organisations and agencies to create this world. In the same way that the International Space Station is a truly multi-national research facility, constantly being added to and developed with modules and laboratories owned, operated and then shared by scientists and nations from across the globe – so we imagine many modules and facilities with a wide variety of objectives and ambitions but all hooked into an overarching narrative that is itself always plugged into the core values and mission of the Agency.

Importantly too we intend to continue to work with public, building based organisations to create programmes which encourage/drive agents (both children and adults) to visit them and play (learn) in “the real world”.

We never imagined or designed it to be this way but… UNSA now feels as real as ESA or NASA or any of the other Agencies. Of course we don’t have rockets or satellites or launch facilities (yet!) and our budget is probably a bit smaller… but today I am stood here, representing this thing that exists simply because we dreamed, imagined, created it. And any of you are welcome to join us. We dare you to join us. It’s really good fun.

Because our hope is we that in 20 years time, when one of our alumni is picking up their Sir Arthur Clarke Award or their Nobel Prize or are actually part of the first crewed mission to Mars – that they will be wearing their UNSA badge and saying “It all started for me when I signed up to the Unlimited Space Agency…”

Thank you for your time.

Funders for Mission To Mars and The Astronautical Challenge were Arts Council England, the Science and Technology Facilities Council, Equitable Charitable Trust and the Ernest Cook Trust.

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