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Education

Degree could get you to Mars

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AN OPPORTUNITY to work on the 2020 European Space Agency (ESA) / Roscosmos mission to Mars has taken an Aberystwyth University student a step closer to a career in the space industry.

Ariel Ladegaard from Bergen in Norway has just returned from the Atacama Desert in Chile where he has been taking part in an ESA field trial of a test rover, as scientists prepare to go in search of life on the red planet.

As an undergraduate student on the Space Science and Robotics degree programme at Aberystwyth, Ariel was invited by computer science lecturer Dr Helen Miles to look at how images sent back from Mars could be corrected to reflect the planet’s true colours.

Dr Miles and fellow space scientist Dr Matt Gunn at Aberystwyth University have been working on PanCam, the mission’s panoramic camera system.

Tasked with capturing stereo and 3D images of the Martian terrain, work on PanCam is led by the Mullard Space Science Laboratory at University College London.

At Aberystwyth, Dr Gunn and his team have developed a hardware emulator for PanCam and a unique colour swatch inspired by the stained glass windows of medieval churches to ensure it accurately captures colours on the sun-blanched planet.

Images taken during the mission will be studied by geologists as they look for minerals that might indicate the presence of water and the building blocks of life.

For his final year undergraduate project in 2018, Ariel was set the challenge of developing a prototype software package that could compensate for imperfections in the mission’s camera, and the wear and tear of working in Mars’ hostile environment.

“Driving around on Mars is challenging and time-consuming, so you want to be certain that you’re going in the right direction. Images taken from a distance will be analysed to look for possible sites where the rover can use its ground penetrating radar and drill, so they need to be as accurate as possible.

“Once back on Earth the images will be processed by a radiometric correction pipeline which automatically adjusts them based on our knowledge of how the images were taken and how the camera responds to light in various conditions.”

Ariel’s undergraduate project focused on developing a proof of concept framework for the correction pipeline and drew on work done on the ground software for NASA’s James Webb Space Telescope.

Now a PhD student at Aberystwyth, Ariel is working on the next phase and developing the algorithms that go into correcting the images.

Ariel said: “Aberystwyth has been great. It is everything I could have hoped for from an education in terms of how quickly I have been able to get involved in something meaningful to me, a real project. My goal is to work in robotic space exploration, a niche industry that can be difficult to enter but Aberystwyth has certainly opened the door for me.”

Speaking of his work on ExoMars, Ariel added: “It has been very nice to see just how open people in the ExoMars community have been to new actors coming in with questions and their own ideas and views on things. At first, I was a bit overwhelmed by the mission itself as it has been going on for a long time. There’s quite a barrier to entry for new people in understanding just how everything fits together, not just on a technical level, but also on the social and political levels. The more I have delved into that, however, the more I’m confident I have something to offer to the project.”

As well as developing image processing software, Ariel has been involved with ExoFiT, ESA’s Airbus-led field trials using an ExoMars-like prototype rover in Spain and Chile.

Working near the Paranal Observatory high up in the Atacama Desert in February 2019, he was part of the team testing the mission’s procedures and approaches to gathering science.

It was also an opportunity to put the image processing pipeline to the test, with pictures sent back to the UK for correction.

Ariel added: “Aberystwyth’s involvement with ExoMars revolves around calibration of the mission’s camera system and correction of images – understanding how the cameras work and how we can process and interpret the images. It was good to be able to put some of the work we have been doing in Aber to the test in Chile and gather valuable test data.”

Before taking up his studies at Aberystwyth, Ariel was a student at the Norwegian Centre for Space-related Education near Andenes in northern Norway.

He worked for seven years in the television and film industry before returning to higher education as a mature student on the BSc Space Science and Robotics degree at Aberystwyth University’s Department of Computer Science.

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Education

Major prize for UWTSD lecturer

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A UWTSD academic has been awarded the prestigious Henry Stopes Memorial Medal.
Based at the University’s Lampeter campus, Dr Martin Bates accepted the outstanding contribution award from the Geologists’ Association during an online ceremony on Friday 7 May. This prize is awarded just once every three years for exceptional work in the archaeological field and specifically ‘on the Prehistory of Man and his geological environment.’
During his career, Dr. Bates has been involved in several major discoveries within the UK archaeological field including the Dover Bronze Age Boat, the Clactonian Elephant butchery site in Ebbsfleet, the Harnham terminal Lower Palaeolithic site near Salisbury.
He discovered the Happisburgh human footprints in Norfolk (the oldest presently know in the world outside Africa).
It was noted during the presentation that the Henry Stopes Medal had been awarded to Dr Bates for his “significant contributions to understanding the geological environment of prehistoric human occupation of Britain and elsewhere over the last 40 years.”
It was also noted that in the spirit of the Geologists’ Association he was “generous with his time and expertise to colleagues, students and members of the public alike.”
Following the awards ceremony, Dr Martin Bates commented: “It is incredible to be recognised in this way and I’d like to thank the Geologists’ Association for this honour.  
“However, this award really reflects the support I have received through my career from a whole range of specialists who have provided me with the data I have used in my research. Without them I would not have been able to do what I have done”
“I think this all goes back to my very early days spent on the beaches of West Wales being dragged along on Saturday fieldtrips led by my father for students studying geology at Aberystwyth.  He has a lot to answer for!”

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Education

Students relying on free school meals fell further behind

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THE ATTAINMENT gap between disadvantaged primary school pupils and their classmates has grown in mathematics by one month since the onset of the pandemic, according to interim findings published this week by the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF).

The findings are drawn from an ongoing EEF-funded study that aims to understand changes to the gap which might have occurred due to the periods of partial school closure resulting from the Covid-19 pandemic.

While disadvantaged pupils’ outcomes in mathematics seem to have been hit hardest by the first national lockdown, the attainment gap did not widen (or shrink) during the Autumn 2020 term.

Thar suggests that gaps caused by Covid are unlikely to close without intervention.

The research is based on assessment data collected by FFT Education from 132 primary schools prior to and after the first national lockdown.

The report did not measure the impact of school closures on overall learning progress (sometimes referred to as learning loss) but, instead, looked at the differences in progress between pupils eligible for free school meals and those that are not.

Data from reading and maths assessments (PIRA and PUMA tests) taken in Autumn 2019 was used as a baseline to track the trajectory of the attainment gap.

Pupils whose data was included in the sample were all in Years 1 to 5 (5-to-10-year-olds) during the academic year 2019-2020.

Reading and maths tests were administered to these same pupils on their return to the classroom in September 2020, and then again towards the end of the Autumn term 2020.

Disadvantaged pupils’ performance in the tests was compared to that of their classmates to examine changes to the attainment gap which might have resulted from the first period of partial school closures.

The analysis of these results indicates that pupils from socio-economically deprived backgrounds have fallen further behind in maths since the onset of the pandemic.

Contrary to previous estimates, this study found no discernible change to the disadvantage gap in reading.

The findings also highlight the difficulty of combatting educational inequality in classrooms.

Data collected from PIRA and PUMA assessments taken at the end of the Autumn term 2020 indicate the return of all pupils to school in September has not been sufficient in narrowing the gap.

Further analysis is currently underway.

A final data set will be collected in June 2021 to examine whether the disadvantage gap narrows, widens, or remains stable.

Sir Peter Lampl, chairman of the Education Endowment Foundation (EEF) and founder and chairman of the Sutton Trust, said: “Today’s research gives us more evidence of the enormous impact school closures have had on young people, especially those from low-income homes.

“The research indicates the need for long-term, sustained support for schools as they work to accelerate the progress of their disadvantaged pupils.

“To mitigate against the long-term impact of lost learning, large government funding is required. The cost of failing to act now will be a catastrophe for young people from low-income homes.”

Professor Becky Francis, CEO of the Education Endowment Foundation, said: “The pandemic has brought the significance of social and educational inequality into sharp focus.

“Research studies like this one are providing clear evidence that substantial existing gaps have grown further due to the disruption to learning caused by the pandemic.

“In strategizing an approach to recovery, we are presented with the opportunity to go beyond restoring the learning lost during partial school closures, and work towards rebalancing the scales for disadvantaged pupils.”

Researchers from FFT Education said: “Our study makes a fresh contribution to the research on the effects of COVID.

“We find that attainment gaps between disadvantaged students and their peers have widened slightly in maths, but not reading.

“We also find that there were surprisingly weak associations between school responses to COVID – for example, phoning students during the lockdown – and attainment.”

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Education

Skills competition beats Covid restrictions

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THE ADVANCED Manufacturing Skills Academy at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) recently hosted the finals of Skills Competition Wales.

Entrants visited the Academy on April 21 and 22 to complete challenges as part of the CNC section of the competition, which focuses on cutting metal using a computer-controlled machine.

Due to Covid-19 restrictions, the entrants completed their challenges two at a time in a controlled environment using machines that are well spaced apart.

Some of the entrants are apprentices at the Academy, which opened its doors last year with the aim of building the skills needed to deliver technologies that keep Wales’ manufacturing industry globally competitive.

It provides students with technical training to degree level, all within one facility in the IQ building in SA1, Swansea.

Working in partnership with three leading manufacturers – Mazak (machine tool supplier) Renishaw (measuring/inspection equipment) and Sandvik Coromant (material cutting tools supplier) the Academy is fully equipped to cater for the needs of a multitude of industry sectors.

The apprentices at the Academy are all currently employed trainee mechanical engineers who have been given the opportunity to study at the Academy as part of their apprenticeship programme to further enhance their technical skills using modern, high-end industry-standard equipment.

“We are able to provide them with full exposure to the technology and allow them to have valuable machine time without the added pressure often found within a manufacturing environment,” says Lee Pratt, manager of the Academy at UWTSD.

“To say I’m proud of these young engineers is an understatement!

“Given the limited amount of time to prepare for the skills competition due to COVID restrictions, they have gone above and beyond and are a credit to their employers.

“A big thanks to Adam Youens and the team for organising such a great competition, Mark Aspinall from competition sponsors Quickgrind and our 3 judges Steve Franklin, Steve Cope and Andrew John. I’m sure next year will be even bigger and better. On to the next competition now!”

Lee said hosting Skills Competition Wales was an important step in highlighting the work of the Academy as well as creating opportunities for its apprentices.

“This competition was an exciting opportunity to raise the profile of the Academy within the industry sector and hopefully attract further business,” said Lee. “We entered the apprentices into the competition to not only give them a platform to display their talents nationwide but also enhance their training with us.

“We believe that by taking them out of their comfort zone and placing them in a competition environment will expose them to some of the demands and pressures found daily in a modern manufacturing environment.”

The competition was held over a two-day period, during which competitors had seven hours to produce a component from a 2D drawing and 3D CAD (computer-aided design) model with the use of CAM (computer-aided manufacturing) software and a CNC (computer numerical control) machining centre.

If the Academy’s apprentices are successful in the competition, they will be invited to attend the awards ceremony, which is usually held in Cardiff but is likely to be online this year due to Covid-19.

“We will then be putting them forward to compete in the World Skills Competition and hopefully gain squad selection,” said Lee. “They will then undertake a two-year training programme building up to the global competition due to take place in France 2023.”

The Advanced Manufacturing Skills Academy at the University of Wales Trinity Saint David (UWTSD) hosted the finals of Skills Competition Wales

The competition comes at the end of a very positive first year for the Academy. It has run a highly successful pilot course with its first cohort of apprentices and has received some excellent feedback from industry, with employers reporting a significant rise in both ability and confidence amongst their apprentices.

“We are looking to further expand this training to upskill the existing workforce through a suite of bite size training modules in various disciplines,” said Lee.

This comes at a time when the impact of Covid-19 has heightened the need for these skills within the various industries served by the Academy.

Graduates equipped with high-level skills have a vital role to play in helping to stimulate economic growth during these uncertain times and beyond, and UWTSD has been working closely with Welsh Government, local authorities, and industry partners to deliver the skills and opportunities that will help rebuild the fabric of communities in Wales.

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