Science is among the most varied, fascinating and creative of all human endeavours, but for hard-pressed science teachers struggling with unreliable equipment in low-tech surroundings, trying to convey to pupils the sense of wonder many of them still feel for their subject can be a real challenge. Children are rarely inspired by working through endless examples in well-thumbed textbooks. But take them to a planetarium or a science show and watch their little eyes light up.
So the Science Centres nearing completion in Glasgow and Dundee will provide an enormous boost to science teaching throughout the country. In brand-new buildings packed with working exhibits they can get their hands on, children (and adults) will be able to "follow their own paths of exploration and discovery through an exhibition landscape full of engaging, intriguing, delightful and memorable activities". The larger of the two science centres is at present emerging from the mud of a building site at Pacific Quay on the south banks of the Clyde in Glasgow. It consists of three elegant structures of glass, steel and titanium: The Millennium Tower, a 100-metre high aerofoil which rotates in the wind, with a viewing platform at the top and exhibition space in the base; the Imax Theatre offering spectacular films exploring scientific subjects in 2- and 3D; and the main exhibition building itself.
"Glasgow Science Centre will be an incredible experience for children and adults," says education development manager Rebecca Crawford."There will be hundreds of working exhibits, a tiered theatre so everyone can feel part of the action, a multimedia theatre for sensational demos using equipment you can't get in schools, a planetarium, an IT lab, a resource library, a teaching laboratory, and throughout the four-storey building there'll be lots of discovery zones with materials the children can use to make things and take home with them."
The experience will begin as the visitors cross the Science Plaza, where science buskers and outdoor exhibits like whispering dishes, wind chimes, radio antennae, a windmill, a solar panel, steam engines, lifting devices and questions cut into granite will give a tantalising foretaste of what is to come. In the entrance foyer they will be welcomed and entertained by a sophisticated robot before being taken to the children's reception area on the ground floor, the beginning of their journey of discovery.
"We are seconding teachers to help us link what the children will see and do to the school curriculum," says Dr Crawford,"and help us plan how they will move around the building. The Science Centre has been designed to accommodate 1,000 children at a time, and we're aiming to attract upwards of 100,000 in the first year."
Each floor of the glass-fronted building overlooking the river has a different ambience and style of activity. The first floor contains displays on the foundations and phenomena of science, and will be a high-energy space with lots of hands-on exhibits; the second has applications such as engineering, imaging and communications; and the third will tackle the scientific and technological issues of the day.
"The Science Centre is a long-term resource," says science and exhibits manager Graham Durant. "We want people to use it often, dipping into it as they would a library. We also want it to reach out to the disadvantaged communties, and I'd like it to be a cool place for teenagers.
"Personal contact is important, and we'll use people called staff scientists who will lead teams of explainers and come up with ideas for exhibits and shows."
Glasgow and Dundee science centres have been co-operating during the planning stage and will continue to do so after their doors are thrown open to the public. "We want people to come to both," says Dr Durant.
Dundee's Science Centre is smaller and more tightly focused than Glasgow's but has two advantages over its more ambitious counterpart - an earlier launch and a special name.
"It is called Sensation," says education manager Alice Hague. "and in it you'll find out all about the human body, plants and the environment, the differences between plants and animals, sound, light and the senses.
"You'll be able to crawl through the inside of a leaf, climb up a giant nose, find out what it's like to have a bird's eye view of the world, or try your own keyhole surgery. The idea is that children will want to come so adults will bring them along, and during the visit they will realise they're having a good time too.
"We'll be running an education programme from September onwards which will concentrate on schools and colleges at first, but will expand to include things like camp-ins and adult education courses. Teachers have been consulted about the content of the exhibition and will continue to be involved in the education programme. We also have a junior board with members drawn from primary schools in neighbouring authorities, which is consulted about things ranging from the content of the exhibition to what they'd like to see in the shop."
Outreach activities, which take science out of the centres and into the schools and communities, are a feature of science centres worldwide. In Scotland there already exists a pool of expertise, in groups such as Glasgow University Science and Technology Outreach (Gusto), which the centres can draw upon and extend for their outreach activities. Dr Crawford is well placed to co-ordinate these efforts because she was the founder-member of Gusto, which at one time consisted solely of herself, a small grant, and a great deal of enthusiasm.
But nowadays students from a number of universities are enlisted and trained to work with experienced science communicators, and the science shows they perform all over Scotland have proven very popular. Children remember them for years, because they are action-packed, and use fascinating equipment like plasma globes, liquid nitrogen and sparking capacitors.
"The scientist got a glove and put it in a cold liquid with tweezers," says young Sam of St Peter's Primary school, Glasgow, "and when it came out it was all icy. And she crunched it up and it broke into pieces, and if that was your hand when you went to straighten it your fingers would fall off."
"If you get a child interested," says his teacher Anne Duncan, "you're halfway there. When the scientists came to our school all the children were coming up with ideas, even those with learning difficulties. Some ideas were wonderful, some wacky, but the children were thinking ' what if?' And that's what science is all about."
Dundee Science Centre opens in July this year. Glasgow Science Centre is aiming to make some of its facilities available in the autumn, with the official launch the following spring. For further information Rebecca Crawford at Glasgow Science Centre, tel: 0141 4205000 or Alice Hague at Dundee Science Centre, tel: 01382 305544