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Light the touchpaper

Jerry Wellington greets a new dawn in interactive science at Cardiff's Techniquest. A crude extrapolation from current Department for Education statistics shows that in the year 2004, one solitary candidate will sit A-level physics in England and Wales. Such is the decline in the sciences that there seems little that schools or colleges can do to arrest it - they no longer have the time, curriculum freedom or financial support to convince pupils of the value and excitement of science.

The only hope for the subject's survival is that other agencies might play a part, such as hands-on science centres, which have the power and potential to change people's attitudes. Techniquest has always been one of the leaders in this field and on May 1 the centre moved to new, purpose-built premises thanks to several million pounds from Cardiff Bay Development Corporation. The result is a stunning building in a superb location overlooking Cardiff's inner harbour.

The science centre concept no longer implies a cold, dark shed in the inner city housing 40 or 50 activities built by underpaid enthusiasts. Techniquest has set an example for the future - a centre with exciting well-built "exhibits", but also a Planetarium capable of holding a whole class; a lecture theatre for more than 100 to allow demonstrations and guest lectures; a modern lab for training and development; a "Discovery Room" with boxes holding materials and guidance on topics from fossils to skulls, which can form a special, quiet area for visitors; and a libraryinformation room with multimedia work stations, information sheet and (dare I say it) books.

The centre employs three staff full time on its education programme, whose activities include: an outreach programme into primary schools, including the loan of kits in five areas central to the national curriculum; "theme weeks" designed to structure school visits in areas such as Sound and Music, Energy, Forces, Ourselves, Materials and even "Science for Christmas"; "focus cards" for children visiting, with a kind of treasure hunt helping to structure their enjoyment; and in-service training for teachers.

But what of the two floors of hands-on activity? There are many exhibits which will be familiar: a Bernoulli blower with its beach ball on an airstream greets the young visitor; a long echo tube is nearby; and a cleverly-built device for blowing smoke rings further in. But Techniquest has its own unique exhibits which really need to be seen rather than described. They include an excellent chromatography activity for all ages using felt tips; a rocket launched towards the ceiling by igniting hydrogen from the electrolysis of water; and the "Ice Drops" exhibit, which involves cubes of ice sinking through a layer of oil, then floating on the water layer below.

Other exhibits which people may not see elsewhere include a simulation of the Bermuda Triangle in which a model ship sinks in water (air bubbles play a part here!); a Welsh Harp which you play by passing your hand through laser beams (safe, of course); a beautifully designed Ames Room which distorts our perception of shape and size; and, naturally, a Welsh Dragon which is labelled "Puff the Pneumatic Dragon" and controlled by the visitor. The "Low Light" room contains many Optics exhibits which catch the eye.

All the exhibits are built to a high standard in attractive, colourful material, and pass the two key tests for an active, hectic environment: they are robust and they are safe. The busy hands-on floors have about a dozen "helpers" in green shirts who seem to enjoy themselves as much as the visitors and generally do not fall into the common failing of guides or "pilots" of talking to each other more often than the paying guests. Incidentally, one helper I spoke to has discovered a new male phenomenon in the science centre - the man who becomes hooked on the large hands-on mathematical puzzles, of which there are some excellent examples in Cardiff. He cannot be dragged away by child, partner or helper.

Techniquest has many plans for the future. It aims to attract a wider cross-section of the public with new initiatives. It plans to develop new exhibits not just in chemistry, but also in biology, engineering and maths. The centre has reduced the length of its written captions to an absolute minimum, but now plans to produce information sheets on each exhibit which visitors can use to follow up their interest. In short, Techniquest is helping to move the science centre into a new phase. If only every locality could have one, then we might begin to make some inroads into the demise of science as a cultural and educational activity.

o Techniquest, Stuart Street, Inner Harbour, Cardiff CF1 6BW. Tel: 01222 475475

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