Like a trolley in the sky

9th May 1997 at 01:00
Valerie Hall finds out what infants are making of the British Association's new materials

Orion's Belt, the Plough, the Bear, familiar names all, but many people can barely pick out the Plough in the night sky, let alone expect young children to distinguish the constellations. Yet the Pleiades could become as familiar to four and five-year-olds as Postman Pat, through an ingenious mobile planetarium devised by the British Association Youth Section (BAYS).

Steve Smyth, BA's youth activities manager, developed the planetarium employing what he calls a "simple reverse projection technique". Children sit in the gloom of a large, domed tent gazing at the constellations projected on its walls by means of light passed through a plastic bowl, underneath which the stars have been printed in black dots with their names alongside. There is enough light for the children to work on clipboards.

"They can operate the projector themselves and draw their own star patterns on acetates to project on to the heavens", says Steve Smyth. "We get them to come up with their own shape for, say, Leo - the most common one is a supermarket trolley - so they almost create their own mythology and it's a good way for them to remember the stars".

Supported by a small grant from the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council, the planetarium is to be incorporated into BAYS "Star" outreach workshops.

Another new BAYS initiative is the launch of First Investigators, a science teaching pack and award scheme for five to eight-year-olds, which can be used as part of school work or in lunch-time and after-school science clubs. It comprises task sheets and teachers' notes on topics such as shadows, balancing clowns and kitemaking. A Silver Star certificate is awarded to children completing six of the activities and a Gold Star certificate for 12 activities.

The pack has been tried out in schools in London, Wales and the Midlands. Hugh Greenwood, a Year 2 teacher at one of the schools, St John's in Brixton, says: "It is really flexible, being easy to simplify or make more complicated according to ability levels. Because it covers a wide spread of topics, teachers can stick religiously with it or dip in and out. It's an easy, teacher-friendly pack and you don't need to be a PhD scientist to get your head round it."

During the one afternoon a week normally devoted to science, he has rotated his pupils around two or three experiments from the pack: "You don't need masses of resources, just sheets of paper, empty cans and so on. Several of the topics can be linked to other subjects - varying levels of liquid in cans making different sounds leading on to music composition, for example. Or the slopes experiment - about angles, gravity, momentum - could be linked to last term's theme of transport." Not only did his pupils enjoy doing the tasks, particularly for the carrot of a certificate, but, according to Hugh Greenwood, their parents have also been enthusiastic: "In this area there are a lot of single parents and it normally takes a lot to get them out to school events, but they flock to science days."

Other BA developments include the redesign of its Young Investigators pack for 8 to 13-year-olds, and the introduction of a new outreach workshop, "C's the opportunity", with Chemical Cluedo and Making Slime.

BAYS outreach workshops cost Pounds 195 per day with a Pounds 25 discount for members (membership is Pounds 25 a year). The First Investigators pack is Pounds 25, Pounds 12 to KS1 classes, Pounds 5 to members. Certificates Pounds 1, or Pounds 1.50 each for up to four: BAYS First Investigators, 23 Savile Row, London W1X 2NB. Further details: Steve Smyth, tel: 0171 973 3062

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