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Bright sparks get the big idea

From the windy beach the grass-covered object rising from the sand closely resembles a large dune. But dunes do not take two years and pound;14 million to build; nor are they glass-fronted with queues of children waiting to enter. No, this is definitely not a sand dune.

It is The Big Idea, the "world's first inventor centre", built on the site of Alfred Nobel's explosives factory in Irvine. It opened on April 15 and welcomed 2,000 visitors on Easter Monday alone.

Here children of all ages are jostling, pushing buttons, turning knobs, pulling levers. Mechanisms are clanging, gears are whirring, robot arms are clicking and humming. Balls are whizzing along pipes, flywheels are spinning, ropes and pulleys are lifting weights, and a big green apple is falling with monotonous regularity on the long-suffering head of Sir Isaac Newton.

Suspended from the ceiling and looking like a weird combination of a rabbit hutch, a pram and a pterodactyl, the kinetic sculpture "Homage to Leonardo" periodically lights up and bursts into swirling, flapping, musical life.

"The trouble with this place," says one wistful, elderly gent, "is that you can't get near the exhibits for the kids."

People can make a good living from inventiveness and most inventors don't work alone. Some, such as Nobel, Edison and Ford, make a fortune and all experience the satisfaction of taking simple components available to everyone and turning them into something that has never existed before. This is the message of The Big Idea.

The centre takes a resolutely hands-on approach. Visitors can explore five different themes - mechanisms, control, communications, materials and energy - with a variety of devices such as cams, gears, robots, injection mouldng machines, solenoid valves, flywheels, turbines, pumps and propellers. They can probe the inner mysteries of appliances ranging from the pop-up toaster and the washing-machine to the motion base and the ultrasonic scanner. Digital technology lets you photograph yourself apparently on a beach in Hawaii.

"They even have an exhibit that shows you how your toilet flushes," says Isabel Allison, senior teacher at nearby Ardeer Primary school.

Colourful computer animations illustrate principles, reinforce ideas, and provide the kids with yet more opportunities to get their hands on something fascinating.

The Alfred Nobel exhibition tells of the man's life and the factory he built here, the forerunner of ICI. The Nobel Theatre and the Magic Library bring the Nobel prizes imaginatively to life.

The History of Explosions takes you on a "white-knuckle ride" from the Big Bang through Chinese fireworks to wars and space exploration. "We don't recommend this show for mums-to-be or people with a nervous disposition," says the guide to the delight of the children.

Ms Allison says: "The hands-on approach is a big bonus with children - on most school visits they are not allowed to touch anything - and they learn a lot in a practical way.

"Each year we go on a visit chosen by the class and this year they've all decided to go to The Big Idea even although they've been here already - twice."

The Big Idea, The Harbourside, Irvine, KA12 8XX Tel 08708 403115. Open daily 9.30am-6pm.

Group rate pound;4.50 per person, including an inventor kit that children can work on during the visit and keep.

Booking advisable. Education liaison officer Margaret Peddie.

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