Dynamic Earth visitor centre in Edinburgh proves that the Scottish landscape contains plenty of surprises, says Julie Morrice.
What's that?" I ask a tableful of Primary 7 children from Tollcross in Edinburgh. "An esker!" they chorus in reply. "A what?" Esker n. a long winding ridge of gravel, sand, etc, originally deposited by a meltwater stream running under a glacier. Tollcross's esker is made of polystyrene, padded out with paper towels, then covered with air-drying modelling clay in suitably geological tones of green and brown. It is meant to be the Bedshiel Esker, which adorns the landscape of East Lothian.
This is the first education workshop at Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh's new state-of-the-art visitor attraction, which explores the planet in all its historical, geographical, biological, geological, meteorological and ecological variety. During the week the education staff and eight classes of primary children are creating and piecing together a giant three-dimensional map of Scotland. It is to include as many geological features as possible, but sadly not including the Shetland or Orkney Islands. "Too much sea in between," explains one of the staff, a little guiltily.
Scattered about the classroom are outline maps of Scotland marked off into approximately 100 little squares. Tollcross's Primary 7s are responsible for the 12 squares in the bottom right-hand corner: Edinburgh, the Lothians and the Borders. So one group is busy creating the tumbling waters of the Grey Mare's Tail north of Moffat, while another is trying to smooth off polysterene blocks to represent the rolling Southern Uplands. Traprain Law is taking shape over here, and Arthur's Seat is looking vaguely leonine near the door.
Scooting about the classroom, mixing paint, pouring glue, cutting sticky tape and cultivating a thin veneer of control, are Dee Davison, Dynamic Earth's education manager, her two education staff, and freelance artist Neil Russell, who has also been responsible for the fantastic decoration of the education unit.
This is a classroom to die for: the floor swarms with images of animal life; one wall sprouts an enormous oak tree, alive with inhabitants; from another wall an orang-utan swings and snakes slide; in the far corner an enormous red octopus stretches out its tentacles while seahorses and jellyfish bob across the translucent curtains at the windows. Next door a volcano is erupting across one wall and half the floor, while a half-finished ice-cave awaits positioning in the far corner.
The entire 3-D map of Scotland is to be unveiled at the end of the week in an amphitheatre outside the Dynamic Earth building, with its 200 primary school creators in attendance, along with various academics, councillors and sponsors.
Eventually, there will be workshops to mesh in with each of the eight main galleries in Dynamic Earth: How it all Started, Restless Earth, Shaping the Surface, Casualties and Survivors, The Oceans, Polar Regions, A Journey of Contrasts, and The Tropical Rainforest. Classes will visit the appropriate gallery, experiencing the sights and sounds of their chosen subject, then go into the education unit to explore in more depth.
The first gallery to be used for education projects is probably the most immediately attractive - Restless Earth. The first of those workshops are aimed at S2 classes and cover three main areas: earthquakes, volcanoes, and the Scottish landscape. "We want the pupils to see the workshop as a scientific investigation," says education worker Morag Watson.
While the sticking and modelling goes on in the education unit, in the gallery itself, 41 second-year pupils from Ardrossan Academy are taking the "time machine" back to the beginnings of life on earth. "We've been on a bus for an hour and a half," points out Gillian Muir, a guidance and geography teacher, as the time machine's inhabitants begin to bubble with volcano-like exuberance. The descent through time is marked by bursts of laughter: "Six billion years ago. That was about the time Mr Gilchrist was at primary school." But once into the first gallery, the vertiginous journey around the universe seems to mesmerise the class into something like concentration.
It is the juddering floor and glowing lava of the next gallery that really grabs them. "Even if some of the science is a bit advanced for them, visually it holds their attention," says Ms Muir. "They've all got eyes like saucers."
"It's almost better than a field trip," says geography teacher Jim McLellan, as we swoop and swerve across the glaciated landscape of Skye in a virtual helicopter. "There are no worries about the weather, wondering whether everyone's going to get soaked or not, and they'll see more here than they could ever see on the ground."
Certainly the pupils are enthused: "I want my parents to bring me back," says Hannah-Beth Chaplin-Hughes, although she is less than halfway through the marvels on offer.
"The Ice-age was lovely," adds Lisa McKechnie, "but I liked the bit where the floor moved best." Most of the boys are too busy sampling primaeval gloop to comment. Gillian Muir starts searching in her bag for tissues.
Back in the education unit, the Tollcross pupils are lining up to go home. "It's been fantastic," says class teacher Mark Grierson. "I can't believe this is the first workshop the ecuation staff have done. They're all brilliant with the kids and amazingly well organised." The geo-sculptures look tremendous. The esker snakes convincingly across green fields, the Southern Uplands are a riot of autumn colour and Siccar Point shelves away steeply into the sea.
As the happy, paint-spattered class files off, Dee Davison pulls open the doors into the next room. "Okay, we've got 20 minutes before the next class arrives. Get the maps in here to dry out and we'll just have time to grab some lunch." Twelve squares down, only 82 to go.
Dynamic Earth, Holyrood Road, Edinburgh EH8 8AS. Tel: 0131 550 7800. Adults pound;5.95, children pound;3.50, school parties pound;2.50 each child. To arrange a school visit or workshop, contact Dee Davison