Science comes full circle

Birmingham's Thinktank museum is taking learning outdoors with a new interactive garden

David Harrison

The giant hamster wheel looks harmless enough, but as the huge steel drum gathers pace, I feel increasingly uncomfortable. There may be no realistic chance of falling off, but with a top speed of 30 revolutions a minute it doesn't feel that way.

What you wouldn't know at first glance is that I am also learning about science. By walking in the hamster wheel I am producing the energy to drive a centrifugal governor that powers and controls the speed of an engine. I can even see this in action as the engine is powering an automaton of a hamster grabbing a human running inside a wheel. When the demand being made of the engine increases, its speed naturally decreases - but the governor adjusts itself to keep the automaton moving at a steady pace. Magic.

In fact it's pure science - like the rest of the 42 exhibits at the new Thinktank Science Garden in Birmingham, which opened on 2 June. The first of its kind in the UK, the pound;2.8 million park aims to take children out of the classroom and help them to learn about science in a practical and entertaining way.

Like many children, when I was young I never saw science as fun - perhaps because the lessons seemed irrelevant to my everyday life. The science park, which adjoins the Thinktank Science Museum, aims to change all that.

Funded by Biffa Award, the Wellcome Trust and the Millennium Point Trust, it sees itself as an investment in Britain's future - inspiring a new generation of children to become scientists and engineers. "We want to give the children a break from passive learning in the classroom and allow them to engage physically and bring the science to life," says Lorraine Kenny, education manager at the museum. "We call it learning through `bodies on'."

Certainly there is plenty of opportunity for children to get physical: the logic-defying people wagon of the Wacky Wheels exhibit, with square wheels on one side and round on the other, designed to show the scientific requirements for having a smooth ride; a giant weighing station and "pulley me up" exhibit that demonstrates force; and the chance to build an arched bridge that supports weight despite using only stacked blocks. Then there is the "elasticated squirter" - a water piston that works on elastic potential energy.

More than three years and 10,000 hours of labour have gone into creating this garden, and on the day I visit, Year 5 children from Belgrave St Bartholomew's Academy in Stoke-on-Trent seem to think that it was very much worth it.

Joel Grajnert and Lauren Heath, both 10, and Faiza Hussain, 9, enthusiastically join their teacher, Nicola Spencer, on Propeller Power. Here they have to turn metal wheels to activate a pulley system and make two overhead propellers turn. "This is a good way to learn," says Joel, delighted as the propellers begin to whiz round. "We get to try fun things and see how they work. It's much better than being in the classroom."

The children are also fascinated by the arched bridge and the fact that it stays standing without nails or glue. They cross it gingerly at first - unconvinced that it will hold firm under their weight. But once Clara Lim, the park's curator, explains how the sideways pressure on the curved bridge stops it from collapsing, they stride across it with the new-found confidence of people who truly understand science.

"It's different from the standard approach to teaching this subject," says Kenny. "The children can feel the force of their own bodies and experience what that force is doing to stabilise the bridge. It's much more effective than just talking to them about it. It makes children realise that science is all around them, part of their everyday lives and not just something they do in a classroom on a Thursday afternoon."

The science park staff work with teachers to help them explain the science of the exhibits to their pupils, but the key is that the pupils can experience it for themselves. "The children can actually feel the experiment," says Lim. "They are the experiment. There is no taking what the teacher says for granted."

Teachers can also use the machines to explain how the human body works, drawing parallels between pumps and the heart, levers and bones, and pulleys and muscles. Indeed, there are educational opportunities everywhere.

Children on-board Wacky Wheels laugh excitedly as they "drive" it from one end of the short track to the other and back again. But they are also amazed to see that the square wheels actually help the vehicle to get over the bumps smoothly - as long as the weight in the vehicle is balanced.

"It helps them to challenge a hypothesis - that square wheels would give them a bumpy ride," says Lim. "It encourages them to think outside the box."

There is just as much fun going on over at Bottle Blast Off where children are filling bottles with different proportions of water and air and firing them - an exercise that helps them to work out the proportion of air and water pressure that will fire the rocket to the highest point. Teachers can use the exhibit to explain subjects such as gravity and thrust.

Then there is a mini-lock, which helps children learn how to open and close gates and adjust water levels. Like many of the exhibits, it was inspired by local heritage - Digbeth Branch Canal runs close to the science park. The propellers used in the Propeller Power exhibit, too, have a design that is a nod towards the Spitfire and Hurricane aeroplanes that were once built in the area - there are examples in the museum.

Spencer is impressed. "It's brilliant," she says. "Our pupils will really benefit from this visual, hands-on learning. They didn't know exactly what was going on at first but they got into it really quickly. This kind of learning opens up a new world for them and will give us lots to talk about in class."

As long as they don't mention the journalist who was scared of the hamster wheel.

For more information, visit David Harrison is an award-winning journalist who has worked on national newspapers and magazines for more than 25 years

What else?

Key stage 1: Skin and bones

Delve deep inside the human body with salaford's My Body interactive book.

Key stage 2: Windy city

Get pupils experimenting with propellers with the United States Department of Energy's wind turbine blade design project.

Key stage 3: Gravity tricks

Make pupils stare in wonder with mad.scientist's video showing a penny and a feather falling in a vacuum.

Key stage 4: Humpty Dumpty had a great fall

He fell off a wall, but could he survive skydiving? Elliehowarth's exciting lesson gets pupils to create parachutes for boiled eggs.

Key stage 5: Central challenge

Explore the centre of gravity through a number of challenges in a presentation from pand.

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David Harrison

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