On a sunny winter's morning at Broadwater Farm Primary School in Tottenham, Year 1 pupils watched in awe as their teacher was engulfed in a soap bubble the size of a small car. That afternoon, Year 6 shrieked as stunt-toy Phil the Frog was gaffer-taped to the top of a rocket and then fired to the ceiling of their gymnasium.
They were watching the Science Museum's outreach team, who performed their primary science shows, Bubbles and Feel the Force, to more than 500 children in the course of the day. Senior teacher Fiona MacRichie thinks it's brilliant. "Instead of going to it, we're bringing the Science Museum to us," she says.
The Science Museum outreach programme provides educational science displays and workshops to students of nursery age through to A-level, and to the wider community. The team began four years ago as an extension of the Science Museum's in-house presenters' department, the Explainers. Since then, it has grown rapidly - "from four people to 13 full-time over the past three years," says founding member Barney Grenfell. They aim to provide inexpensive and entertaining presentations, without relinquishing the desire to teach hard science, "Every show we do, we start off by studying the national curriculum links and try to cover as many as we can,"
says co-founder, Mark Steed.
The presenters challenged pupils to think beyond curriculum basics. To this end, Feel the Force introduced Year 6 to Newton's three laws of motion, the most famous of which is "every action has an equal and opposite reaction".
The Bubbles show even gave Year 1 pupils a taster on molecular bonding, by modelling the structure of soapy water using volunteers linked with rubber rings.
Despite such demanding content, ebullient presenters Deanne Nuala and Mark Steed created an endearingly anarchic atmosphere. During Feel the Force, the call and response between Mark and his audience before he pulled a silk tablecloth successfully out from under a china teaset, was more akin to pantomime than to a friction experiment, and such was the suspense when the water rocket was launched, with Phil the Frog astride it, that one enthusiastic Year 6 boy fell off his seat.
While older students are cool to the comedy that can be developed with younger audiences, Mark says that the outreach team still aims for "big impressive demonstrations". The KS3 biology show, It Takes Guts, "involves videos of people's insides and graphic demonstrations of the digestive process," says Duane, adding that it uses tins of baked beans to great effect.
In the KS3 show, Glorious Blood, the team demonstrates how a scab develops over a bleeding wound. "We get a leaf blower to blow out red balls from a large container," says Mark. "Then students hold a red net over." This provides an analogy for the lattice in the scab. Such interactivity with students is a cornerstone of their work.
As well as presenting new concepts to pupils, Barney finds that teachers often book the team to help with revision. Fiona MacRichie did just this on behalf of her Year 6 teachers, who had told her that, in the run-up to the Sats, the children were a bit confused on forces. In Feel the Force, the team's multi-sensory approach and PowerPoint presentations reinforced key terms, such as upthrust, friction, magnetism, gravity and air resistance.
The programme costs schools upwards of pound;180 per visit, but the team provides different presentations for up to several hundred students over the course of a day. Avisit like the one at Broadwater Farm would work out at less than pound;1 per child. "Compare that to the cost of transportation," says Mark. While entry to the Science Museum itself is free, travelling costs can be prohibitive. An added benefit is that the outreach team will tailor shows to the needs of individual schools.
The team have presented their shows in Northumberland, Derbyshire, and Ireland. Success has been fuelled by sponsorship arrangements with the Deutsche Bank; BP and the Department of Culture, Music and Sport, and by profile-raising performances at the Swindon Science Festival and the Association for Science in Education annual conference. Bookings have nearly doubled in less than a year - Phil the Frog might just want to invest in a crash helmet.
* Schools Outreach at the Science Museum, Exhibition Road, London SW7 2DD
Tel: 020 7942 48254741