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Academics need students with stars in their eyes

PUBLISHED: 09:00 25 March 2014

Brian Cox and Dara O Briain present the much-loved BBC Stargazing LIVE programme, which featured astronomers from Devon's University of Exeter

Brian Cox and Dara O Briain present the much-loved BBC Stargazing LIVE programme, which featured astronomers from Devon's University of Exeter

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Educating school children in astronomy is imperative in helping to solve the future problems of the Universe, experts say

"Education is key to solving the current and future problems of the Universe"

Devon-based astronomers, who recently appeared on the BBC Stargazing LIVE programme, believe the minds of our younger generations hold the key to discovering a “twin” Earth and developing a better understanding of the relationship between our solar system and exoplanets.

Dr Nathan Mayne, an astronomer at the University of Exeter, who frequently gives inspiring talks at schools throughout the county on the vast and complex wonders of the Universe, says there is a “need” for budding young astronomers.

“Education is key to solving the current and future problems of the Universe, such as understanding the atmosphere on exoplanets and discovering a habitable planet which is similar to Earth, like Earth’s twin,” he says. “We need young astronomers who will pick up our research where we leave off.”

Taking his knowledge to a wider audience, Dr Mayne joined experts from the University’s Physics and Astronomy unit to discuss their pioneering research on the new series of the much-loved Stargazing LIVE programme, broadcast at the start of 2014 and presented by popular physicist, Brian Cox and Dara O Briain.

“Our aims in appearing on the programme were not only to raise awareness of the research we do on exoplanets but to continue to attract a public interest in the stars,” he says.

“We hope that it will inspire people of all ages to learn more about exoplanets and the fascinating research that is taking place in this rapidly growing area of astronomy.”

Dr Mayne, who has recently spoken at Exwick Heights Primary School and Uffculme School, near Tiverton, believes the tides in understanding the Universe turned in 1992 when planets, called exoplanets, were discovered outside of our solar system.

Although his team at the University and astronomers worldwide are working tirelessly in an effort to further understand stars, galaxies and the exploration of space, there is much more to learn and uncover, he says.

“Kids are always cleverer than you think they are and I could guess how long it would take to discover a habitable planet but chances are, with the right education, the kids today will do it sooner, in say 20 years if I guessed at 50 years.”

Dr Mayne also believes that a career in astronomy and astrophysics is a “realisable dream” for those currently at school. “I lived on a small farm near Camborne, Cornwall,” he says, “and spent much of my youth interested in surfing and rugby.” But choosing to study Physics at A-Level set Dr Mayne on a path to gaining a PhD in Astronomy.

“The decisions you make early-on will help in later life,” says Dr Mayne, giving a word of advice to students. “Sciences and Maths are key to studying and working in astronomy,” he adds.

The right choices for Dr Mayne mean he is now part of one of the UK’s largest astrophysics groups working in the fields of star formation and exoplanet research, focussing on some of the most fundamental problems in modern astronomy – when do stars and planets form and how does it happen?

They conduct observations with the world’s leading telescopes and carry out numerical simulations to study young stars, their planet-forming discs, and exoplanets.

This research helps to put our Sun and the solar system into context and to understand the variety of stars and planetary systems that exist in our Galaxy. Through its science strategy, the University has invested £230 million of internal and external income in five key themes of activity, one of which is Extrasolar Planets.

If you are a teacher who would like to get your students involved in the University of Exeter’s astronomy outreach activities, contact Zena Wood, Outreach Coordinator at the College of Engineering, Mathematics and Physical Sciences, on 01392 723628 or email emps@exeter.ac.uk

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