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 - todays 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 whats 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 Trusts 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 pupils 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, Dixons 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 centres web site to find resources that show say,
exactly which bits of the curriculum youd hit by blowing rings, puffing air
and making batteries.
As many centre programmes tell (on the web or mailed to
local schools) theres 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
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.