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Centre of the universe

A new space campaign complex in Leicester is truly cosmic, writes Gillian Blatherwick

At the north of the city of Leicester, a space-age structure has caught the attention of the locals. Standing in stark contrast to the early Victorian chimneys of the adjacent Abbey Pumping Station, this large plastic bubble, encapsulating three magnificent rockets, stands tall on the skyline, beckoning with its glinting promise of a thrilling and captivating visit.

The National Science Centre is all that it was planned to be: a vibrant, visually exciting attraction that inspires wonder at the awesome size of the universe in which we live.

From the moment you step in, the size and diversity of space hits you. As the individual planets unfold, you notice that Britain is so small you can barely spot it.

The domed theatre has a range of films, each designed to enthral different age groups. Each film features a combined live and recorded interactive lesson, with children able to participate from the control pad at their seats. Sawan Thakrar, 14, of Rushey Mead secondary school in Leicester, was in one of the first groups to visit. "The best bit was the planetarium - all of my friends thought so as well. The show was mind-blowing, with really good special effects and great surround-sound," he says.

The centre's education officers, Gareth James and Joy Horton, have striven to establish a dedicated schools area. Three well-equipped classrooms can be used for planned workshops and relevant support materials are available for each age group.

The website is excellent, too. It features frequently asked space questions. And, yes, it tells you in detail about onboard toilet facilities! Net-surfers can e-mail questions to space scientists.

At the foot of the rocket tower, the Challenger Learning Centre, the only one in Europe, offers Rendezvous with a Comet, which is suitable for children between Years 5-8 and Voyage to Mars, which is for Year 8 and above.

Brought from its Leicester University home, it has kept alive the memory of the ill-fated 1986 Challenger space mission in which Sharon McAuliffe, selected from more than 11,000 applicants to be the first teacher and civilian to fly in space, was one of the seven astronauts killed.

Liz Mason, the Year 6 teacher at Rushey Mead primary, is one of the Leicester teachers lucky enough to have taken children on a Challenger Mission before its move. "Challenger is a unique problem-solving experience that involves all the children," she says.

Pupils are fascinated by the enormity of space and diversity of the planets. The centre fires their imagination. It can be an excellent launch pad for many cross-curricular activities: literacy can be supported by science fiction; maths with the concept of large numbers; and religious education stimulated bythe sense of awe and wonder.

Every aspect of space has been considered here: the history of space exploration, science and geography, In the stellarium, you can see night sky constellations without light pollution, and hear the Greek myths associated with each.. Or you can marvel at the genuine space artefacts on show.

The National Space Science Centre is a very well-planned attraction. Because it is located in the heart of the Midlands, it is destined to attract visitors countrywide. And if you can't manage a visit but want something of the experience, the centre offers two alternatives.

There are space boxes available, full of genuine space artefacts and activities, or the BT Starlab is a visiting inflatable planetarium that is big enough for a class full of children and their teachers.

Gillian Blatherwick teaches at Rushey Mead primary school, Leicester Contacts

National Space Centre, Exploration Drive, LeicesterGroup bookings: 0116 2582111 www.spacecentre.co.ukeducation@spacecentre.co.ukFree teacher familiarisation visits. Challenger Missions must be booked separately from a visit to the Centre. The BT Starlab costs pound;150 for half a day and pound;225 for a full day.

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