The award by the Millennium Commission is the second largest for a Scottish venture and will meet almost half the Pounds 34 million cost of the Dynamic Earth project. The organisers have already been promised more than Pounds 19 million from private and public sources.
Housed on the site of the former Holyrood brewery in Edinburgh's Old Town and adjacent to the Palace of Holyroodhouse, the centre will feature the earth's creation and continuing evolution.
Sir Charles Fraser, chairman of the Dynamic Earth Charitable Trust, said: "The project will not only capture the imagination of visitors but will prove an invaluable asset to Scotland's education system through special facilities linked to schools and universities."
Lothian and Edinburgh Enterprise, the project's main manager, said the aim was to "educate through entertainment". The centre hopes to attract 475,000 visitors a year after it opens in 1999, of which 100,000 will come from schools.
"A key objective of the project," the bid to the commission states, "is to attract every school child in Scotland to the centre at some stage in their curricular development."
The designers also sought advice from a group representing children with special needs. Nancy Ovens, co-ordinator of the National Centre for Play at Moray House Institute, said: "No effort has been spared in consulting, in listening, in identifying practical responses."
Alison McGilvray, director of the Scottish Down's Syndrome Association, also praises "the deliberate intention to make this facility accessible and stimulating for children with special needs".
Sandy Crombie, principal scientific adviser to the project, describes it as a "major national educational resource". Two classrooms will be serviced by a full-time education officer with assistants.
The inspiration for Dynamic Earth was James Hutton, the founder of modern geology. The new centre is on the site where Hutton lived and worked in the 18th century, against the dramatic backdrop of Arthur's Seat and Salisbury Crags. The study of these volcanic ridges helped Hutton form his revolutionary Theory of the Earth.