UK Space Agency: engaging young people with science and horticulture
Here they explain the strategy used and the challenges faced.
On 3 September 2015, one million rocket seeds launched into space on Soyuz 44S. On 15 December 2015 they were joined by British European Space Agency (ESA) Astronaut Tim Peake as he began his six month mission on board the International Space Station (ISS).
On the seeds’ return to Earth in March 2016, they were packaged up and sent to 8,600 schools and groups alongside a packet of identical seeds that had remained on Earth. The packets were identical in every way except for the colour – one red, one blue. We asked participants to perform a unique experiment – to grow the seeds and, based on their observations, predict which colour packet contained the space seeds.
An engaging marketing strategy was designed to create excitement among the participants and encourage them to inspire others through a flurry social media activity a key stages of the campaign. Through a media partnership with the BBC, shareable video content featuring Tim Peake, vibrant resource packs for schools and significant social media activity, this project was brought to life resulting in over 600,000 young people of all ages engaging with real science and horticulture in a way that was truly ‘out of this world’.
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Our strategy was to enable young people to assume the mantle of a space biologist through a mass-participation experiment of national importance. We created a compelling narrative around working together as a community to solve major problems facing the world – in this case, food security and the challenge of growing food in space.
We partnered with the UK Space Agency to send one million rocket seeds to the International Space Station (ISS) which were joined by Tim Peake as he began his Principia mission. On the seeds’ return to Earth in March 2016, they were packaged up and sent to schools and youth groups alongside a packet of identical seeds that had remained on Earth. The packets were identical in every way except for the colour – one red, one blue. We asked participants to perform a unique experiment – to grow the seeds and, based on their observations, predict which packet contained the space seeds. Using a number of online and offline marketing tools we created a ‘knowledge sharing community’ comprising over 600,000 young people, thousands of teachers and a captive audience of millions of people consuming the project through the media.
Rocket Science launched at RHS Chelsea Flower Show in May 2015 with over 10,000 delegates visiting the stand. This was complemented by a TV slot on BBC Breakfast, several local radio interviews, e-communications sent to 18,500 schools and a launch on our website. We timed our marketing communications to correspond with key events and live broadcasts including a message to schools from Tim Peake from the ISS, and BBC features with Science Correspondent Pallab Ghosh, as well as our own e-communications to create momentum throughout the experiment.
Social media was a key asset in creating our community of space biologists. Throughout the project over 1,000 photos were shared on Twitter using #RocketScience depicting schools celebrating their participation and excitedly setting up their experiments. At key points we also sent (via ESA) posts directly from Tim’s Twitter and Facebook pages. Through our multi-platform marketing strategy, Rocket Science exceeded our targets in all areas and was the biggest engagement project the RHS has ever undertaken with schools. Rocket Science was one of 30 educational projects linked to Tim Peake’s Principia mission and was by far the largest in terms of participants.
The strategy was made up of a number of creative touchpoints to reach the maximum number of people. The giant exhibition stand at Chelsea Flower Show not only announced the launch of Rocket Science, but also showcased some of the real research being carried out in space and on Earth surrounding food growing, and presented a conceptual ‘astro-garden’ to invite visitors to consider how we might grow food on another planet in the future.
We designed and created a physical experiment pack to send to each group containing the two packets of seeds, an experiment booklet, stickers, posters and giant wall chart to record their findings. The pack was a fantastic tool which allowed groups to share their participation with the wider school community. Hundreds of photos were shared on Twitter of children proudly holding their precious packs.
Regular e-communications and video releases featuring Tim Peake continued the hype and schools were encouraged to continue sharing their participation for a chance to win limited edition Rocket Science mission patches. Photos poured in of schools carrying out the experiment and of extra work they had carried out such as posters they had made, assemblies they performed and models they had built.
Rocket Science exceeded expectations by engaging 600,000 young people in practical science from 8,600 schools and groups all across the UK. TV, radio, online, national, regional and consumer press coverage to date has reached 184 million people with an advertising value equivalent (AVE) of £2.05 million.
A template press release was sent to each school or group to allow them to share their participation with their local press resulting in a reach of 3 million people and an AVE of £84,000.
Posts sent from Tim Peake’s Twitter and Facebook accounts in collaboration with ESA reached a large audience that we may not have otherwise been able to access. A Facebook post encouraging schools to sign up received over 2,300 shares and 9,400 likes.
A series of videos featuring Tim Peake helped to spread word of the project via social media - a video of Tim on the ISS inviting schools to join has received over 20,000 views and a video of Tim revealing which seed packet contained the space seeds has received over 10,000. The exposure we received for this project was hugely beneficial to both the RHS and UK Space Agency. Not only did it highlight how STEM can be accessible to all children but it also raised the profile of the RHS Campaign for School Gardening and the charitable work it carries out, as well as the importance of Tim Peake’s mission and the future of the space industry.
We must also not forget the significant importance of the experiment results themselves. Of the 8,600 schools and groups that took part, 65% of them entered their data into our national online database – this is an unprecedented number of responses compared with other schools’ scientific experiments in the UK. This figure shows how dedicated the children were to see the experiment through to the very end and also demonstrates that the experiment itself was accessible enough that so many schools ran it to its completion.
The average findings from the experiment were also compared against a laboratory controlled version carried out by Royal Holloway University of London that corroborated the results. This was especially significant for the future of research into growing food in space.
Following the experiment we published a report ‘Rocket Science: Our Voyage of Discovery’ which presents the scientific results and the outcomes and benefits. The photographs and quotes from pupils within this report speak for themselves. Rocket Science mattered to everyone who took part and impacted on them in a huge number of ways. Pupils were inspired to continue or start studying science, felt like part of something big, and were excited to take part in a project that had not been done before.