Curving the light fantastic

3rd June 2005 at 01:00
A wondrous interactive roadshow of scientific principles is captivating pupils, reports Lorn Macintyre

As the children come into Canongate Primary in St Andrews, lasers, lights, balloon rockets and other attractions make their eyes widen in wonder. For the rest of the morning they are enthralled.

The school is the first primary to be visited by Tripping the Light Fantastic, an interactive exhibition put together by Kenneth Boyd and Craig Harvey, two science graduates from the University of St Andrews who run Fifex, an award winning company that designs exhibits for science centres and museums. They have recently teamed up with a group led by Professor Kishan Dholakia, of St Andrews' physics department, to deliver workshops for schools and festivals.

The professor captivates his young audience with his introduction to the topics of light, force and colour.

"Why is the sky blue?

"How do we get rainbows?"

Each question brings a show of hands.

"How can we guide light?"

With impeccable timing, the professor switches on a green optical fibre snaking around the room and explains that this is the technology which allows us to talk by telephone to people overseas.

After the introduction, the class breaks into three groups to investigate the exhibits. Eleven-year-old Daniel Grant can't believe that he is being allowed to operate the optical tweezers, which cost pound;25,000. Being able to "grab" a particle and move it is far more exciting than a computer game. Professor Dholakia explains it has a serious application in cancer research, when a cell can be "grabbed" for examination.

Emma Lindsay is shining a laser beam into a tank and watching it bend, because, as the professor has already explained, the beam can't escape the water.

At the next table, children are watching open-mouthed as a large beach ball stays up in the air, supported only by a stream of air blowing from a machine.

Why is it that when you throw the ball, you go backward on the skateboard? Elementary, really. It's a demonstration of Newton's third law, that for every action there is a reaction.

The children re-form into one group for Professor Dholakia's final revelations. He shows some fun movies of cutting edge research from around the world, including tying a knot in a strand of DNA and "the smallest Strip the Willow in the world", with particles acting as dancers.

Is the presentation not too complicated for primary children?

"Everyone asks what is the age to motivate children," says Mr Boyd. "The general feeling seems to be that there is a drop-off at S1 and S2 level, because the interest they had in science and technology when they were younger is lost.

"The teachers themselves urged us to bring science into the primary school.

"We'll go anywhere. If one school would host us and other schools could come in, that would be ideal.

"We'll adapt the show and take it to secondary schools too. We have tried to tie it in to Standard grade, but S5 and S6 pupils also can get a lot out of it."

Professor Dholakia has had a fulfilling morning. "I think it's really important that we engender the next generation of young scientists and people who are going to help our quality of life," he says.

"What was really exciting about this morning's session was that some of the children had already thought about some of the questions. If you can make connections between things like light and gravity early in these young people's lives, that opens them up to learning more about science as they grow older."

Would young Daniel Grant like to be a scientist? "It would be quite cool."

And his classmate Emma Lindsay? "Yes, it must really be fun."

Fifex, tel 01334 477733, info@fifex.co.uk

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