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Science club has minds spinning

Primary schools around Edinburgh are keeping up local associations with explorations in technology. Douglas Blane reports

The past, present and future of science and engineering can all be seen at Queensferry Primary on the Firth of Forth. In 1890 the first train rolled across the remarkable railway bridge that still dominates the skyline from the north-facing classroom windows. Some of the pupils' parents are now employed designing components for the international space station. And the inventive minds and nimble fingers of the pupils in the school science club may well belong to the scientists and engineers of tomorrow.

"In the desert, they've got power plants made from solar panels just like this one," explains young Iain, "only much bigger, like a football field.

"What they do is turn light from the sun into electricity. This one is making that motor go. See?" "It doesn't work so well when there are clouds in the sky," adds Leanne.

The after-school science club is part of a Shell education project called Inspire that is aimed at nine to 13-year-olds and has been developed by educationists at Sheffield Hallam University. All the equipment, worksheets and teachers' notes are supplied and Shell trained the teachers and organised a one-day workshop at the school to spark the children's interest.

Edinburgh City Council is also supporting the project and 14 other local primary schools are taking part.

Parents, grandparents and babysitters are also encouraged to come along and get involved in the club's activities with the pupils.

"I'm really enjoying it," says Sheila Wallbanks, whose daughter Janice, ably assisted by two young sisters, is constructing something from white card. "It's sociable and educational - for me as well as the children."

"Our after-school clubs are very popular," says headteacher Sheilah Jackson. "We run them in language, maths, computing and science.

"Primary teachers sometimes aren't very confident about science. And they don't often have time to set up experiments. The great thing about this project is it's all planned out and resourced, with everything you need, right down to scissors and glue."

Eachweek the children make different working models - helicopters, periscopes, kaleidoscopes, parachutes, airboats, submarines, balancing clowns - which can be used to explore basic scientific principles. "If they make a balloon-powered buggy, for instance," says Julie Jordan, the project co-ordinator at Sheffield Hallam University, "they can then look at the things that affect its speed. They can think about relationships, variables, fair testing. Also at the end of the session they've got something they can take home with them."

Towards the end of May, Queensferry Primary will show the projects in a little science fair and then in June a larger festival with participants from all the 15 Edinburgh schools is planned.

"The teachers are getting a lot out of this as well as the children," says Mrs Jackson. "Those who come to the club share what they do with their colleagues, and we get to keep all the equipment, so it builds into a programme of work for the whole school.

"There's a relaxed and fun atmosphere in the club which helps develop positive relationships between the children and adults. And we get scientists along from the university to answer questions. This kind of support is really exciting."

So what exactly are these cylinders of spinning white card with black animal shapes on the inside that the young scientists are constructing today?

"They're called zoetropes," says Iain. "It's a toy they made in olden times before television was invented."

"You see how all the pictures are slightly different?" asks Janice. "Well, when the motor makes it turn and you look through the wee slits, it's as if the bird is flying and the big cat is running. But really you're seeing different pictures."

Leanne holds up her spinning zoetrope and, sure enough, the silhouette characters seem to move. But the action doesn't seem quite right: the cheetah appears to be running backwards at high speed, which cheetahs don't do in real life. What can be changed to make him run forwards? "Let's investigate," says the teacher.

For information on the Inspire project contact Shell Education Services, tel 020 7934 3149 email

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