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Marvel at the wonder of science

The interactive exhibits at the Glasgow Science Centre are so much fun you'll be back for more.Douglas Blane reports

On a cool morning as rain speckles the slate-coloured waters of the Clyde, pupils from Notre Dame High school make their way to the main exhibition building at the Glasgow Science Centre. Soaring above the bulging dinosaur-egg of the Imax theatre, the slender Glasgow Tower scrapes the underside of the clouds as the first school visitors enter the great, glass-fronted Science Mall and are let loose on the exhibits.

The S3 girls have already told education manager Rebecca Crawford - who rashly referred to them as "children" - that the preferred designation is "young adults". But their veneer of cool sophistication melts like snowflakes on the river as the 80 pupils are absorbed into the expanse and begin to play with the Bernoulli blower (illustrating a principle of hydrodynamics), the periscope, telescopes, microscopes, lasers, pendulums, pulleys, magnetic fields, the whispering dishes, the mirrors, bubbles, sparks, echoes and reflections of the 120 interactive displays that make up the first-floor exhibition on the foundations and phenomena of science.

The youngsters measure their blood pressure, examine the insides of their eyes, noses and ears, lift themselves off the ground with pulleys and play football on a turntable. They also squeal, giggle and bounce around from one exhibit to the next.

"That's what always happens when young people first enter a science centre," says Dr Crawford. "It's called the pinball effect."

Beside a xylophone, whose richly musical tones peal out from cylinders of grey granite, two girls are wearing Velcro waistcoats on to which are randomly stuck lumpy internal organs. The object is to rearrange them to their anatomically-correct locations.

"Hang on a minute," says one, "I don't have a large intestine."

"No problem," says her friend. "Take mine."

Twenty young graduates, the "science explainers", who are scattered around the floor to answer questions, seem as enthralled as the S3 girls, who look as if they could spend the whole day on the first floor. But their teachers are keen to take them to the third, where the theme is the impact and issues of science.

Here, among olive trees, worms and bearded dragons, there is still fun to be had and interactivity remains a prominent feature. But on this floor science is presented not as an exercise in high-tech effects, or an absorbing exploration of the principles of nature, but as a human activity with consequences that range from highly beneficial to deeply disturbing.

The response of the students becomes more thoughtful and complex. They laugh at the mareting of the "labcoats" and test tubes - Petri dishes actually - that created the friendly face of Dolly the sheep. They ponder the ethical issues of organ transplants and designer babies. There are even a few tears as they hear of the dog Laika who was sent into space with no way to get home.

A debating area and voting wall lets them express and record their opinions on the issues surrounding genetics, biotechnology, the environment, the nature of risk, animal experimentation and science in the news.

All too soon the morning is over and it is time to get the pupils back to school. Two floors devoted to technology, engineering, creativity, communications and computers remain unexplored, as does the planetarium, the biotechnology laboratory, the multimedia theatre and the pound;3 million virtual reality installation.

The Science Centre is such a wonderland of delights that a teacher feels like a child in Willy Wonka's chocolate factory. It would be great to taste everything but it can't be done in one visit - and it would not make much educational sense to, in any case.

"You need to aim for a balance between pupils having a good time and getting the most educationally from a visit," says Notre Dame biology teacher Alasdair MacRae. He is one of several teachers who have been working with the Science Centre to give structure to the displays and create trails, together with pre-and post-visit activities that focus on particular areas of the curriculum, such as biotechnology, Standard grade chemistry and 5-14 forces, energy and electricity.

This work continues and Ms Crawford is keen to maintain a dialogue with the teachers. "I'd like them to tell us what they want, to feel the Science Centre belongs to them. We're an educational charity. Schools visits are heavily subsidised and any profits are invested in the work we do.

"I passionately believe the Science Centre is going to be a really important place. And the designers have done a smashing job with the exhibits, haven't they?" They certainly have. The hundreds of people who have worked on the centre since its inception - the architects, designers, research scientists, construction workers and the hugely impressive education team, whose youthful enthusiasm belies their experience - have created the most marvellously magical resource for science and technology teachers that Scotland has every possessed.

Go see it.

The Glasgow Science Centre, Pacific Quay, Glasgow G51 1EA, opens to the public on June 21. An educational preview is organised for June 11. To attend, teachers should contact Alasdair Burns, tel 0141 420 5010. Bookings for school visits next session will be taken after then. www

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