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Forensic children and wild things

Gerald Haigh visits Birmingham's old science museum after a cutting-edge facelift.

Opened last September, Thinktank is the latest in an exciting series of science and technology discovery centres across the UK.

Housed in Birmingham's impressive Millennium Point, along with an IMAX Theatre and a number of other city projects including the University of the First Age, Thinktank is actually a rehousing and updating of the long-established Museum of Science and Industry. This was itself a celebration of a city that has been been at the cutting edge of technological change for 200 years. Given Birmingham's heritage, it seemed appropriate that it was Year 6 children from James Watt junior school in Handsworth visiting Thinktank on the day I was there.

Part of their day included a Crime Detective Workshop run by the education staff in a well equipped classroom.

The whole class, working in groups, examined fibres, fingerprints and DNA as they tracked down a thief. The children used straightforward forensic samples and computers linked to microscopes. One group used magnifying glasses to compare the suspect's fingerprint with a sheet of prints of known "criminals". Some of the differences were quite subtle, and this caused lively debate. On one side were the painstaking observers, on the other those ready to arrest people after a cursory glance at the evidence.

It's realistic because it was put together with the help of the Forensic Science Service and the West Midlands Police scenes of crime office. Jenny Thomas, science co-ordinator at James Watt, says: "The children thought it was brilliant. They saw a point to it all, and it opened their eyes to the kind of jobs scientists do in the real world." The exercise is, she points out, well in line with the national curriculum. "It's investigative work, posing and answering questions. There are links to literacy, too, as the children write up their visits afterwards."

Jenny Thomas has organised visits for every class at James Watt over a period of a fortnight. Other classes have done workshops on Dynamic Earth (volcanoes and the formation of rocks) and Wild Things (evolution and adaptation, looking at specimens).

The workshops are only part of Thinktank. The main attraction, especially for family groups, is the galleries, 10 themed interactive science exhibitions targeted at specific age groups from early years to upper secondary. Futures, for example, has robots that visitors can programme. Medicine Now has enough on genetics, surgery and ethics to challenge the most able A-level students. Kids in the City offers the youngest children the chance to be car mechanics, posties, chefs and market traders in a jolly and colourful child-friendly city.

There's some excellent water play equipment for younger children, too. Indeed the whole early-years area is superbly and imaginatively equipped - like a good nursery unit, but with plenty of space and more, and bigger, equipment than you'll find in a school or playgroup.

What's clever about all the galleries is that although they are age- and curriculum-related, they still make, together, a fascinating experience for adults and family groups. In Things About Me, for example, which is a tour of the human body, there's a working model of the digestive system. Big, simple and colourful, it's aimed at key stage 1. But it clearly never fails with visitors of any age - perhaps because it doesn't flinch at showing the last stage in the digestive process.

The old Science and Industry Museum closed while Thinktank was being prepared, and some Midlanders wondered what would happen to their favourite exhibits. We need not have worried. They are all there at Thinktank. For example, the vehicles - including a steam railway engine, two Second World War fighter planes and John Cobb's land speed record car - are presented well in their new surroundings. So is the city's superb collection of historic steam engines.

The only regret for Birmingham people is that while the old museum was free, Thinktank is not. As Jenny Thomas says, "By the time we'd paid for the coaches and the insurance and so on, the cost was about pound;6 per child. That's quite a lot for a school in Handsworth."

But there's a lot of added value now. Jenny Thomas finds that a class can spend virtually a whole day there.

They do a workshop, tour the galleries and eat a picnic lunch. "But it's a shame teachers can't get a hot drink in the picnic area," she says.

Hot drinks or not, Jenny is well satisfied with Birmingham's latest educational resource. "It's been a real success for our science week," she says. "I'm amazed how much the children enjoyed it."

ContactThinktank, Millennium Point, Birmingham. Tel: 0121 202 2244. Cost: pupils pound;3.50 each, with a workshop pound;4.50, including IMAX theatre pound;6.50.Email: findout@thinktank.ac.uk Web: www.thinktank.ac.uk

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