Country Focus: Belgium

Belgium shows that STEM needs space

Across Europe, STEM has an image problem: variously seen by students as dull, difficult – and even dirty – science, technology engineering and mathematics do not have the appeal and glamour of careers in law or business.

Even in Belgium, which generally has higher-than-average scores in the latest (2012) PISA study, the same report warns that some STEM abilities have declined in recent years.

The country's division into three linguistically distinct communities adds to the challenges of boosting interest in STEM careers, with the PISA study showing wide variations in performance between Flemish, Walloon and German-speaking students. So how to make STEM sexy – and appeal across linguistic and cultural boundaries? One organisation has shown that the answer could lie beyond the Earth's atmosphere.

What area of scientific and technological endeavour can excite young minds more than space and space exploration? So why isn't space being used more widely in class?

“Space is an excellent subject to make children familiar with science and technology but research shows that teachers feel insecure about their knowledge of the subject and thus, they avoid communicating about the subject or do so in a not very exciting nor interactive way.” states Ellen Geerts in the essay Space Education: The Final Frontier?

esero.beGeert is a member of The European Space Education Resource Office (ESERO) project, part of the European Space Agency (ESA). ESERO's mission is to use “space related themes and the genuine fascination felt by young people for space to enhance school pupils’ literacy and competence in STEM-related subjects.” With the success of the blockbuster film Gravity demonstrating that space is as popular as ever, we thought it was time to investigate further.

inGenious spoke to Denis Cornet, European Space Education Resource Office Manager, and Pieter Mestdagh, the ESERO manager responsible for the organisation’s Flemish programme, to find out more about the organisation's activities and how it is currently spreading interest in STEM across Belgium.

Why chose space as a theme to encourage interest in STEM subjects?

ESERO’s activities help bring STEM subjects within pupils’ reach, demolishing the misconception that science is only for geniuses. Space, in particular, becomes not just a place of inspiration and future dreams, but also an everyday fact of modern life.

ESERO uses and disseminates existing ESA/ESERO space-related STEM classroom resources and, tailoring them to curricula needs. Real space data and applications, accompanied by the role model support of space scientists and even astronauts are used as much as possible.

How does ESERO work in Belgium?

ESERO launched in 2007 the Space Education Project (SEP) in collaboration with the French-speaking ministry of education (Ministère de l’Enseignement Obligatoire de la Communauté française de Belgique), through the Direction Générale de l’Enseignement Obligatoire (DGEO). Twenty-two schools joining its launch at the time. Today about one hundred primary and secondary schools participate.

We offer an annual series of national or regional training sessions for both primary and secondary school teachers that are, wherever possible, officially accredited as part of continual professional development qualifications.

Among the training goals: make teachers develop space-related scientific activities and implement them in the classroom; increase students’ STEM literacy and their interest in a career in STEM and especially on space; (v) to raise awareness regarding space science, ESA missions and ESA education activities.

Specific meetings are going to be set up between secondary teachers and university teachers, to help teachers creating their projects.


In the French part, teacher training actions are mainly addressed to primary teachers while in the Flemish part both primary and secondary teachers are targeted.

In addition to the teacher training, what other activities are organised by the ESERO in Belgium?

Project Asgard, involving the launch of an atmospheric balloon, is one example. Schools all around Belgium can participate by preparing an experiment that can fit in the gondola carried by the balloon. Schools with winning proposals come to the planetarium of the Belgian Royal Observatory, where the experiments are set up, launched and monitored for three days.

Another is the CanSat competition, which invites schools from all over Europe to design an experiment that fit in a can that will get launched into the higher atmosphere by a small rocket.

A third, more public event, was held at the planetarium in Brussels and included several interactive, hands-on workshops and demonstrations, to demonstrate the fun behind science. The workshops, held in French and Dutch, were given by our own colleagues and the ESERO managers.

What is happening to promote STEM in other parts of Belgium?

ESERO Belgium is a national project so we work directly with the three communities of Belgium : French, Flemish and German speaking community.

We have recently inaugurated the Space Education Project in the German Speaking Community (November 2013), that is scheduled for a starting period of 3 years.
And we are now concentrating on the Flanders area, with new proposals on a long-terms strategy.
The Flemish government has set up a huge action plan, called ‘STEM-actieplan 2012-2020’. Four ministers and their administrations are involved: education, work and social economy, economy, science and innovation, with the minister of education at the lead. Among the action plans foreseen in the coming years:

•    Supporting the introduction of STEM-coaches (STEM-professionals) in the 2 last years of primary school
•    STEM guest lecturers from professional technical enterprises in primary and secondary schools to transfer their passion to the students and teachers
•    Introduction of technique lessons in the first two years of secondary school for ALL study fields
•    Specific projects set up with professional partners to build bridges between enterprises and education

This plan will offer greater incentives for school-industry partnerships and we look forward to new initiatives soon to be launched in Belgium.