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Navy lark


Portsmouth Historic Dockyard, College Road, HM Naval Base, Portsmouth PO1 3LJ

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Group admission starts from pound;8.50 per child

Anna Kennedy joins pupils on an action-packed day out at Portsmouth dockyard's latest attraction

Action Stations is the latest addition to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard's line-up of visitor attractions. The exhibition is housed in a rejuvenated Victorian boathouse where high-tech interactivities vie for attention with ancient iron girders and exposed brickwork.

Based on the technology and ethos of the Royal Navy, Action Stations could be seen as a glorification of the gun-toting, action hero stereotype. But that would miss the point. The naval connection serves as a hook on which to hang a wide-ranging education programme covering science, technology and teamwork.

Close to 100 pupils from Year 9 at The Cooper School in Bicester took over Action Stations for a day's visit this summer. Teams tackled games, practical tasks and brainteasers on a circuit organised with military precision. Tasks included making a crystal radio set, untying a knot, sweeping a minefield, deciphering codes, searching for hidden treasure, building a spaghetti and marshmallow tower, piloting a helicopter simulator while blindfolded and clambering up a moving, tilting climbing wall. Teams could even find themselves shut in the little-changed Victorian holding cells having to problem-solve their way out.

One of the most popular tasks was Professor Bilge's Rocket Workshop. The eponymous professor supplies groups with the basic materials for a water-propelled rocket and rushes around doling out tips and zany humour as the teams construct their masterpieces. Rocket testing takes place outside with a distinctly competitive buzz.

The spaghetti and marshmallow tower task also went down well, in more ways than one. It proved a little difficult for many of the 14-year-old would-be engineers to maintain the air of cool nonchalance they had tried to cultivate for their day out. Lots of giggling and surreptitious marshmallow nibbling went on as the wobbly towers took shape. Their teacher, Rebecca Dalton, whispered: "I don't think they've noticed they're thinking yet, which is great."

Action Stations also boasts a wide-screen cinema. A short film on the Royal Navy in the modern world is shown at regular intervals each day. The film is gory, fast-paced and exciting and provides an excellent opportunity to spot soap stars in their jobbing actor days. However, its cliched portrayal of terrorists' dastardly plots being scuppered by the Royal Navy with the help of a plucky young boy seems out of place at Action Stations.

The auditorium came into its own when used for a slide show of digital images taken of the children during the day. The pictures were then available for the school to buy. It's a practical touch that impresses Rebecca Dalton: "They've thought of every little extra thing."

All activities are targeted at key stage 2 and above and can be adjusted to the needs of individual schools. Workshops and educational sessions are designed to cover science, numeracy, English, leisure and tourism, business studies and vocational GCSE IT curricula. Action Stations also caters for teachers with in-service sessions for full and half days.

The engine sounds echoing around the building, together with the excited chatter of busy pupils ensures Action Stations won't be the most peaceful day out, but who wants peace and quiet? Action Stations really does deliver action, along with fun and plenty of teen appeal.

Anra Kennedy is education officer at the 24-hour Museum

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