Spacewalks, Social Media & Semiotics – Helping Students Researchers Interpret Codes & Conventions

On January 15th, 2016 @astro_timpeake took his first spacewalk from the International Space Station. What a great moment – watched avidly by many around the world via a wealth of media posts and live coverage.

@Tim_Peake Selfie
@astro_timepeake Selfie on ISS
Scheduled for Friday 13:30 CET, the day coincided with the start of a new Y5 Computing module on ‘Research & Communication’. Via classroom IWBs, most of our KS2 classes watched the launch preamble live over lunch. When questioned, although many students had heard about the Mission Launch, in the main, they were not sure of what had happened since then and the spacewalk.

In our lessons Friday morning I explained to each class how amazing it is that so much information about space exploration is readily available to us today, compared to when we teachers were at school. To our students going online to search for and access media is as familiar as breathing. They are blissfully unaware that this wasn’t always available!

While writing the new module, I found that the European Space Agency, BBC, and NASA have some amazing resources for education. Along with Tim Peake’s role as an ‘education ambassador’, it’s the perfect time for students to get involved!

With Safer Internet Day 2016 #SID2016 approaching, I saw the opportunity to combine #socialmedia about the mission with #digital literacy, PSHE and topic work. The module focused on communication conventions in different media, such as blog posts, Tweets, news channels, websites.

Where did we start?

Each class split into teams of 2 or 3 researchers and worked on one of 5 selected tasks:

Information Online > what’s true?

In the lesson introduction we talked about what we knew already, that astronaut families were present at the launch, and took part in a live broadcast session from the International Space Station.

Later on, one team researched information on Tim and queried, “Miss Iles – Tim only has one son, you said two children.”

So, #whatstrue? This provided a great opportunity for a conversation about the validity of online information. Why could we see images of the Peake family with two children at the launch, when a website showed they had one child. As an adult, we can work out why this is, but it was interesting to see students really wondering why there was contradiction in information – and, a certain resistance to what we know is the true version! They had an immediate and unquestionable belief in what they had read online.

We set the whole class on the case to research further. They were able to conclude that the information they had read on the website in question was published in an earlier phase in Tim’s career.

Signs, Codes & Conventions – how do we formulate meaning?

I’ve been catching up on reading for an assignment while drafting this post and thinking about how one of the activities, one of the coolest, fits in with concepts of ‘representation’ and code.

Students working on the Astronaut Selection Test (Netherlands Aerospace Centre @NLR_NL) were asked to read instructions and explore the different tools independently.

Within minutes, they were deep in conversation and trying to establish between them what the task required > developing a shared meaning. (Hall, Du Guy et al. (1997).

Although the team had previous experience of programming directions and sequences in Year 2 to 4, they were somewhat mystified by the screen icons. There was a 50-50 split across 3 classes of students: those who got straight on trying and testing each astronaut test function, and those who engaged in lively debate about their opposing ideas on the meaning of the onscreen options.

The screen looks like this:


What we also noticed was even though students understood the meaning of the symbols for up/down, forward, L/R, rotate in 3 aspects (although here called ‘yaw’) through existing programming skills and experience, this new context proved challenging!

It took most students several attempts to work out the spatial aspects, with repeated trial and error before it became apparent to them that each of the lower boxes on screen need keeping in check.

The larger box in the left, ‘Top View’ grabs attention first, and we noticed that slowly, students begin to make connections between the panes for Top, Back and Side views. Students are used to rotate functions being scrollable, based on their experience of orbit tools in 3D Sketchup, Kodu GameLab and even Google Maps Streetview.

In this test, selecting options from the Rotations and Translations tools generates the  Movement List (program) sequence, and Execute! The green box suggests that ‘execute’ = action or run program.

How Do Tweets ‘Tell a Story’ in only 140 characters?

Students commented that the @astro_timpeake tweet style is ‘informal, but informative’. They discovered that Tim’s tweets included images, film clips and GIFs – e.g. CBeebies Miss Mouse joins Tim at the ISS.


The latter was part of a special CBBC program for children  and students were asked to talk in their teams about the thinking behind this clip, specifically:

  • why do you think the astronauts take a soft toy into space?
  • The tweet refers to CBeebies, how are the two subjects linked? (First establishing that everyone knew what CBeebies is).

As with the Astronaut Test above, this tweet relies to a certain extent on inference and I was curious to see how students ‘read’ what was visually represented in a tweet text plus image. Unsurprisingly, most seeing a tweet for the first time did not make the connection between the tweet text and the message conveyed by showing an image of Miss Mouse, referencing the CBeebies program for children to be screened later that day.

When students were asked if they would like to tweet, one student said they didn’t think they’d choose to as “ really don’t have much space to put your ideas.”

Next, we discussed how we might have to change what we say in order to get a key idea across in 140 characters. We quickly surveyed what they had observed about Tim’s tweets, what does each one need, which ones do we like most, and why do we think that is?

The results:

  • Tweets with photo were most favourited.
  • Tweets with a link – students were cautious about where the link goes and if it will ‘be ok’.
  • Why aren’t there spaces between some words with the # before them?

This activity really helped me to see how complex ‘reading’ a tweet is, when looking at to through the students eyes. It is a new media language that we are only beginning to bring into education. I’m active on Twitter and fully can see it’s learning potential. Bringing it into a learning environment, for use by students and staff requires a certain amount of teaching about conventions, formats and understanding twitter nuance, alongside appropriate representation and online identity in the wider world.

I’m planning further lessons to include #tags, how 140 characters influences what you say, and mastering tagging with @s.

Other Resources:

ESA: Space for Kids #spacerocks


ESA: Space for Educators

esa2All round info on space for educators including information on ESA education projects, Teachers Corner and hands-on projects for pupils. Students were captivated by the Once Upon A Time – the story with child-friendly animation telling the story of #WakeUpRosetta that we explored last year.

ESA: Inspiring Children


Link to MA Research






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