Brain of East Sussex

Chris Fautley tries some hands-on experiments at the Science Centre atthe old Royal Observatory.

Science centres are more about conveying the feel of phenomena and the thrill of science, than teaching specific facts and information.

This is the view put forward in a resource pack issued by the Herstmonceux Science Centre in East Sussex and shared, it seems, by many teachers. Certainly, those I spoke to there had not brought their pupils to learn about any particular aspect of science, but rather to gain a general feel for it.

The centre is housed in the old Royal Observatory and run by Science Projects, a charity which aims to promote science through interactive exhibits.

It's a mission in which they have succeeded: from the 50 or so exhibits, There did not appear to any that were not interactive. one or two were out of order, or a little the worse for wear - only to be expected in view of the 10, 000 plus children who pass through the centre every year.

The building is little changed since it was the observatory's headquarters, so it's not a place of fabulous graphics, special effects and plush luxury. Yet it works rather well; you feel as though Britain's pioneering scientists and astronomers still have a presence there. The centre is, says education officer Dr Anthony Wilson, a place where children are inspired by trying out the exhibits.

Liz Mylon was visiting with a group from Years 3 to 5 from Burwash CE primary school in East Sussex. It scores highly, she said, through the hands-on element. "It has all the practical aspects that the Science Museum can offer. It's very well organised."

Dr Wilson confirms that the hands-on factor is the main attraction for most schools. "And," he says, "you are likely to get the place fairly much to yourself."

The exhibits at the centre are broadly themed on light and colour, the Earth, the senses and forces, including gravity. Many experiments would be nigh on impossible to recreate in the classroom. The tornado machine - make your own whirlwind - and a demonstration on the properties of fluorescent, ultraviolet and visible light being cases in point. Another demonstration shows how, by using a spectroscope, astronomers are able to tell what stars are made of. And only the least inquisitive child could resist making a ghost with 3D shadows and heat imaging.

Bridges feature in a big way. There is a separate section outdoors (in a marquee if wet), with the opportunity to build and try cantilever, cable and beam bridges, as well as a wobbly arch. Back inside, there is the chance to make a clock using pendulums.

The section on chance and risk is particularly absorbing, al-though probably better suited to older children. It includes a mock-up lottery machine, together with the news that, apparently, we're four times more likely to fall off a cliff than win the jackpot.

But the stars of the show, so to speak, are the telescopes. The Royal Observatory may have moved out, but most of the old telescopes and the domes that house them remain. The Thompson telescope with its 26-inch refractor dates from 1896 but still works perfectly. Tours have to be booked and cost extra, but are worth it. Again, they are probably better suited to older children.

Between 1897 and 1988 the Thompson took more than 60,000 images. It is able to detect objects 100,000 times fainter than the eye can see. Dr Wilson made it look simple, as he explained how it worked to a group of 13 to 15-year-olds from Westerleigh School in St Leonards-on-Sea, East Sussex, with nothing more elaborate than a magnifying glass, a sheet of cardboard and a photograph.

Teachers Elaine Gordon and Ellen Littler said they had found the astronomy aspect of the centre excellent, and were keen to try one of the evening sessions when the telescopes are actually put to use.

And they, too, echoed Ms Mylon's sentiments: the Science Centre is easy to get to, set in beautiful grounds and provides a good day out. Added to which, you come away knowing that you really have learned something.

Herstmonceux Science Centre, Hailsham, East Sussex BN27 lRP Tel: O1323 832731 www.scienceproject.orgherst Open February to November, 10am-6pm. Booking essential; Pounds 2.5O per child, telescope tour 50p extra.

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