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Eight Science Centres for 2000
 

Time was when teacher would march us round a science museum, give us a little lecture at each exhibit and get us to fill in our worksheets. Frankly, we liked it that way, our teacher had the knack to make things clear and simple.

But times change - today’s curriculum treats science differently, there is a bigger push on scientific enquiry and less of a push on learning by lecture. And if that makes things harder for teachers, the better news is that ‘science centres’, places that are very much about learning by exploring, are here to help. 

With hands-on centres all over the land you needn't travel far – what’s more The Wellcome Trust, the UK charity, has funded eight new ones. It is at such places you will find a newer style of exhibit – things to intrigue like floating a ball on the blow-end of a vacuum cleaner, or triangles of mirrors that reflect your image over and over. They tickle the senses and trigger the questioning approach to science that is very much today.

As Nick Dixon, the Wellcome Trust’s science centre expert explains, museums and centres have different purposes, “Science museums have tended to be about historical things in cases and therefore about the *products* of science. Science centres are about the *process* of science. They are more to do with ‘the nature of science’ as opposed to what it does”.

So rather than put fingermarks on the glass of mahogany showcases, pupils will split light into colours with a giant prism, or take a photograph of their shadow on a giant photo-active screen. Or for the decisive ‘hands-on’, Nick Dixon points to special things like a ‘walk in womb’ at a new Bristol centre or in Dundee, a huge nose to climb and see the effects of smoking on the respiratory system inside.

That process, where pupil’s thinking juices flow when they find a friendly kind of science is what science centres are good at. If they excel in any area, it is offering facilities that schools would be hard pressed to do – like experiments where pupils make and eat artificial food, or copy their DNA and examine it as they do in real genetic testing.

With the current big debate about where genetics is headed, some centres are tooling up to encourage the discussion. In a new Birmingham centre there will a debating chamber – like an electronic parliament with buttons to add some magic to the voting; in Bristol there is a TV studio where videoconferencing extends the discussion to groups at other centres. The new Wellcome wing of the Science Museum uses interactive consoles to take pupils through the choices and consequences of the ‘New Genetics’ while in Newcastle, the issues are raised in a live theatre show.

Fun as this could be, Dixon’s advice is to seek the help on offer to match this to schoolwork. At the well-established Techniquest centre in Cardiff you will find an open-plan gallery, brimful with colour and it is clear in a second that everything is to be played with. You can blow a giant smoke ring, make a battery with fruit juice, and puff air through a model throat. While letting the kids loose on it is fine, education officer Anita Shaw suggests that a more structured visit gives a bigger educational payoff. She recommends a visit to the centre’s web site to find resources that show say, exactly which bits of the curriculum you’d hit by blowing rings, puffing air and making batteries.

As many centre programmes tell (on the web or mailed to local schools) there’s plenty going on behind the scenes, and this is where schools can go further than the walk-in visitor. At Techniquest in a secluded ‘discovery room’ children can work with skulls, rocks, and do more supervised activities like chromatography. A small but perfect planetarium offers the tour of the stars. A science lab might be used for a DNA workshop, while a lecture theatre finds use in theme weeks. Covering a key curriculum area for primary and secondary schools, Anita Shaw points to events with titles like ‘The Investigating show’; ‘Wacky Water’; ‘Chemistry matters’; and ‘Forces’.

Getting the best out of a hands-on centre is to do with getting a balance. Somewhere between children filling up worksheets and teachers filling up with tea is a way of working that has children discovering, succeeding and getting enthused about science.

TIPS FOR PLANNING A VISIT TO A HANDS-ON SCIENCE CENTRE

  • Take up the centre's offer of a pre-visit – you may get in free. 
  • Use the web site to check which bits of the curriculum they address
  • Leave clipboards behind or consider stimulus sheets rather than worksheets
  • Keep an eye on seasonal programmes and go for a themed visit
  • Go off-peak and you may have the centre facilitators all to yourself. 

 

 
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