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Playing to the galleries

Nick Holdsworth reports on how the Science Museum is creating a series of permanent exhibitions for schools and on its youth forum on genetics.

Britain's national science museum is set to become a specialist teacher's richest resource when it opens a series of permanent new galleries specifically linked to the national curriculum's key stages. The Science Museum in South Kensington, London, will launch its new educational facilities in September 1995 in a Pounds 4 million project focusing on hands-on exhibits - which will allow students and teachers to explore scientific, technological, medical and industrial as well as historic environments.

The project, called Switch-on, is being funded by the museum and sponsorship. It will include two interactive galleries designed specifically to dovetail with key stage 1 and key stage 2.

Exhibits suitable for three to six-year-olds and for 7 to 11 or 12-year-olds will open this year, with Switch-on galleries aimed at key stages 3 and 4 to follow later.

A fully functional mock radio studio, designed with the help of the BBC and Capital Radio, will be open to the public and to specially booked teaching sessions for schools. Users will be able to learn about the technology and science of sound through making their own digitally recorded radio programmes.

A laboratory area, provisionally dubbed On the Case, is being planned to allow visitors to participate in workshops studying the science and application of analytical chemistry. Other exhibits, focusing on presenting different areas of science and technology through media likely to appeal to students and teenagers are also planned.

Sarah Leonard, the museum's assistant education officer, says: "The idea behind Switch-on is to create a series of facilities in the museum relevant and appealing to teenagers - to allow science and technology to be explored through contexts which interest them."

The mock radio station reflects teenagers' musical interests, exhibits demonstrating problem-solving and science will focus on forensic science case studies and fashion and design will allow the importance of the chemical industry in clothing materials to be examined.

One gallery already open, Health Matters, which looks at modern medicine and the search for better health, is proving of particular benefit for older students taking A-levels, GNVQs or BTECS, and an accompanying resource pack has been published.

Other areas linking the appliciance of scientific theory, method and practice to subjects of relevance to the GCSE age range will include workshops and case studies of quality assurance in the food-processing industry; the chemistry of sun-screen lotions and cosmetics; and water analysis.

A newly refurbished group entrance will offer school parties better access to the museum, and a larger dining area with hands-on exhibits and demonstrations will keep classes occupied during lunch breaks.

The museum's engineers have also been persuaded to open one of the massive building's heating and ventilation plant rooms, so young people can understand the need for, and science of, energy efficiency.

"The whole project has to function for general visitors as well as schools and teachers, but we are mindful of the fact that everything here at the museum needs to have relevance to the classroom," says Ms Leonard.

The musuem has conducted extensive consultations with teachers and educational specialists, as well as market research with its public, to ensure the new galleries and exhibits are relevant. It also plans to widen the scope of its programme of lectures and other educational forums. A refurbished lecture theatre, complete with multi-media technology will also give visitors greater access to artefacts not always on display in the museum.

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