Or at least it will be for a few lucky pupils next year. Starting in September, Wycombe Abbey International School will welcome astronomy into its curriculum.
Over the course, pupils will learn about the Universe beyond our world. They will discover what our local neighbourhood, the Solar System, is like together with the planets, moons, comets and asteroids within it, together with its central star, the Sun.
Moving further afield they will investigate the five hundred billion or so stars that make up our galaxy, the Milky Way and learn about their lives from birth in massive cosmic clouds to their sometimes spectacular deaths that can outshine the rest of the galaxy, combined.
Moving even deeper in to space, pupils will explore other galaxies, both nearby and distant, and use them as a time machine to investigate the origins of the Universe itself.
Whilst much of the content will be covered in the classroom, every opportunity will be taken to move outside and observe the Universe at first hand. Pupils will learn to navigate their way around the night sky and to carry out important ‘naked eye’ observations. The school will also be purchasing two portable, high performance telescopes. The first will be used for night time observations of stars, galaxies, planets, comets and the Moon. The second is a highly specialised ‘Hydrogen Alpha’ telescope, that allows safe and spectacular views of the Sun.
Clear skies are rare in Changzhou and light pollution is always a problem, so several times a year, pupils will travel to ‘dark sky’ sites where they can observe the night sky in all its glory. Expeditions are also being planned to special astronomical events; one will be in December 2020 to southern Chile, to observe the total eclipse of the Sun.
At the end of the course pupils will be ready to sit a GCSE exam in Astronomy.
Mr. Keith Norfolk will be the principal teacher on the course. He has studied under Nobel Prize winners at CERN, home of the Large Hadron Collider and was employed at the European Space Agency, where he worked on the its educational outreach programme. In addition to his physics degree, he has studied both astronomy and cosmology, was awarded an academic prize for his studies and was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Astronomical Society. He has many years’ experience of teaching both astronomy and astrophysics in the UK to both school pupils and adults and several of his pupils have gone on to be awarded doctorates in related subjects.
Even at GCSE level, astronomy is a highly demanding subject. Pupils will gain, not just academic knowledge of the Universe but also practical skills in planning, implementing and assessing extended series of practical observations. They will need to develop personal skills in responsibility, organisation, self-reliance and teamwork. They will also learn to use advanced mathematical techniques such as numerical modelling and to improve their ICT literacy. The highly mathematical concepts in the course mean that astronomy is also an excellent companion to STEM subjects, such as A Level mathematics and physics.
Beyond school, astronomy can combine with other subjects to form the basis of a wide range of careers including the physical sciences, aerospace engineering and working in the national space programme. China has already developed a manned space programme, launched two space stations, Tiangong 1 & 2, and is planning another, larger platform. Just this year China achieved a world first by soft landing a probe and rover, Chang’e 4 on the far side of the Moon. A continued space programme will lead to many, prestigious career opportunities both within China and abroad.
With astronomy at Wycombe Abbey, the sky is no longer the limit!