The teacher who takes her students to the edge of space

Left to right: Student Isla M, teacher Arabi Karteepan and student Anaiya S Pic: Aysha Imitiaz

Meet the Local Hero: A new series spotlighting community heroes making positive changes in the ELL boroughs. Today’s hero is a teacher who inspires her students to, quite literally, reach the stars. She has been nominated by her students. Aysha Imitiaz reports

For one Croydon teacher, even the sky’s not the limit. Arabi Karteepan, 36, is a teacher at Croydon High School, the head of the physics department and leads the co-curricular club Astrogazers. With students like Anaiya, 14, and Isla, 16, she completed their ”Mission Aspiration” project last year, launching two weather balloons into space and successfully retrieving their data and images.

Tomorrow, the school will be holding a celebration to mark the success of the project and the fact that in January she won the Royal Astronomical Society’s Secondary Education Award for her proactive role in helping students explore Astronomy and Space Science. Their next project is “Mission Pegasus” launching a satellite into low Earth obit.

Her impact extends far beyond domains of science though – for these young girls, Karteepan is a role model embodies the will to achieve their wider aims. Here, two of her students, whose surnames have been witheld at the request of school, describe why she is their hero.

Anaiya S, 14, says:  

“I remember an Astrogazers meeting where we were talking about more ambitious things we could do. As a joke, someone asked, “Wouldn’t it be cool to touch space?”  Mrs Karteepan just fully embraced it, saying, “Why not?”  

That’s the kind of love for space and science that she gives you. And we just went from there and started researching, planning and constructing.  

Mrs Karteepan had a slogan: “Every centimetre matters and every gram counts.” We were literally weighing and measuring out the amount of tape and string.  

Working with her taught me the value of being passionate, curious, determined and precise.  

I want to tell Mrs Karteepan: A lot of people look up to you as someone who inspires them. Even when things got tough, you always found a way to keep our spirits high.  

And now we’ll go even higher into the stratosphere with our next satellite mission: Mission Pegasus, where we will launch a satellite into low Earth orbit. 

Isla M, 16, says: 

”Astrogazers is not just a club. It’s a lifestyle choice.  I’m about to graduate from Croydon High, but the minute there’s a new mission I’m going to come running back as an alumni Astrogazers member.  

The club was founded in 2021. I remember my friend was part of it and very into space. She told me I had to join, and I remember saying, I’m not really that fussed about space, but I came along anyway.  And I just kept going.  

There’s around 19 of us and we fully embrace our nerdiness. We meet once a week and come in during some of our holidays. I came in the day after my prom and straight from the Further Math exam as well.   

Before this successful mission, we had another launch that unfortunately didn’t work out because of wind and friction burn. But instead of letting that deter us, Mrs. Karteepan motivated us even more! Lo and behold, we did try again and it worked.  

Before the mission, we obsessively tracked the weather. If it wasn’t the right wind speed, our precious payloads and weather balloons could have ended up in Germany, France, the ocean, or in a nearby forest farm with locked gates and danger of death warning signs. We could have lost connection with the GPS trackers, or the parachute could have failed to open.  

We ended up retrieving it from a Tesco parking lot, and it has landed 2m away from the Thames. There’s so much we had to take into account. 

And of course, there was funding. I was so clammy-palmed and nervous while delivering my 13-slide presentation to secure funding in front of the Senior Leadership Team and many other key stakeholders. It was this sea of very serious, very important faces peering up at me and I felt the weight of the mission and the club on my shoulders.  

With Mrs Karteepan’s belief though…in science, in the mission and in me, I knew we would do it. 

Mrs Karteepan teaches us how to approach problem solving, even when the task isn’t as astronomical as going to space.  

It’s hard to put her impact on my life into words, but I want to tell her: you’re really inspirational. You don’t give yourself the massive crown you deserve. But you should.  

Karteepan , 36, from a Sri Lankan family, was brought up in the UK and studied Mathematics, Physics and Astrosphysics at Kings College, London has been teaching since 2015, and has worked at Croydon since 2021.

After being told that she had been nominated by her students, Karteepan said: ”To me, the greatest award is when my students keep coming back and genuinely enjoy science. Their cards and letters brimming with enthusiasm for space are the biggest award.I’ve strived for a goal with this club. I feel like I’m the ignition, but these girls are the fuel. 

I always loved space and knew it was for me. Growing up, however, with my Sri Lankan background, there was no shortage of scaremongering stories to deter me from pursuing Astronomy. I got my first Newtonian telescope after getting married.   

I want to give my students the assurance that there’s nothing you can’t do. Dream big or don’t dream at all. Our weather balloons went five Mt. Everests high. 

I’m so grateful to the faculty at the University of Bath, where we launched our balloons, for providing their expertise and a lot of their free time. For our next mission, we’re going higher and planning to put a satellite into low Earth orbit.  

Of course, there are a lot of legalities and procedures surrounding that – even with Mission Aspiration, I was often toiling away in the middle of the night to complete paperwork, project milestones and processes – but sharing that fascination and love for the vastness of the universe with my girls is worth it. 

We wanted everyone to feel like they were a part of it, so we sent up a USB with over 100 names or e-tickets from school. The girls and I made custom ivy pendants and wear them around our necks as a little token of us having been to space.”  

Leave a Reply