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Experiments come to life

Michael Underwood joins students at a workshop that puts the creativity back into chemistry

What options are there for teachers wanting students to experience science beyond the limited facilities and resources of school? The At-Bristol complex, located on that city's Harbourside, promotes itself as a "unique educational resource and an extension of the classroom", so I attended one of its key stage 3 workshops to see what was on offer.

The one-hour workshop - Creative Chemistry - gives students "an insight into colours and light by exploring luminescence, dyes and paints as well as investigating how our perception of colour relates to the physics of light and the biology of our eyes and brains". By the end of the session three national curriculum areas have been covered: Sc3.2 Changing materials, Sc3.3 Patterns of behaviour and Sc4.3 Behaviour of light.

At-Bristol's contemporary design and layout, from the 15-metre mirrored globe to the stunning water features bordering the entrance, takes you aback. Along with its "@Bristol" logo it has a futuristic feel that challenges the traditional image of science centres being musty old museums. Of course, musty old museums play a vital role, but At-Bristol offers students an environment they'll find more accessible and engaging. Instead of viewing items in glass boxes surrounded by "do not touch" signs, students are encouraged to get involved, pick things up, move things around and literally become part of the exhibits.

There was a definite buzz of excitement among the 32 students from St Mary Redcliffe and Temple School in Bristol who were attending the workshop. The fact that this was a day out seemed enough to inspire many of them.

It was clear that the lab facilities and resources far exceeded those found in most schools. The layout of the tables meant that each student had plenty of room to work as well as a tray full of equipment. There wasn't a whiteboard or overhead projector in sight; instead a laptop computer attached to a projector produced crystal clear, full colour images on the wall.

The balance between information and experimentation worked extremely well and the activities followed a similar pattern: explain what students have to do, allow them to do it and then discuss the results. Admittedly this is common in schools, but on the workshop at least four practical experiments are performed within the hour, giving it a real pace that constantly engages the students. One experiment involved mixing two clear liquids, lead nitrate and potassium iodide, to make a yellow powder, lead iodide. This chemical is banned from being used in schools but in this well resourced environment (the workshop teacher has at least one other lab assistant) all the students were able to hold the test tubes, with the aid of protective gloves.

Another experiment allowed them to produce designs on photochromic paper to show how light can create and destroy chemical bonds. These designs were then laminated and given to them to take home, which went down very well.

Towards the end of the workshop the students were given a question sheet and instructed to find the answers by exploring the centre in groups or individually. The facility really came into its own here as the students spent 45 minutes investigating, experimenting and discovering the exhibits. It was clear that they genuinely enjoyed the activities, from "freezing" their shadow to creating a tornado, and other experiments that they just wouldn't be able to do in a classroom.

My one minor criticism is that they had so much to explore that completing the question sheet became a chore; they needed time to investigate the centre before being set the activity. During the final part of the workshop students completed a session evaluation and it was clear that they had gained a lot from the whole experience. Such comments as "the chemicals were good because we don't do much at school" summed up the benefits of this workshop. However, my favourite comment of the day was from a student who was asked what part of the workshop they liked the least: "the evaluation form"!

As well as Creative Chemistry, school workshops at the centre include Body Basics (KS1), Fantastic Forces (KS2), DNA Photocopying (KS4) Marketing Workshop (KS416-plus) and Urban Regeneration (KS416-plus).pound;5 per student (includes entrance to the interactive displays). They admit 12 to 32 students and last one hour.Tel: 0845 345 1235 Email: education@at-bristol.org.ukwww.at-bristol.org.uk Michael Underwood, a former primary teacher, presents the Big Bang Science Show which goes out at 4.25pm on Tuesdays and Thursdays on CITV

ALL ABOUT AT-BRISTOL

At-Bristol is made up of three main centres: Explore, Wildwalk and the IMAX Theatre. Visits to these centres last about two hours each and cost pound;3.95 per person. Additional one-hour activities, including the Imaginarium show, can be booked. Prices start at pound;1.

Explore-at-Bristol - find out more about your brain and body, communicate using the latest technologies and investigate forces, machines and natural phenomena.

Wildwalk-at-Bristol - a natural history experience, combining live plant and animal exhibits with stunning wildlife film footage and photography.

Theatre-at-Bristol is a movie experience that makes you part of the on-screen action. The films explore the themes of science, history and the natural world.

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