A riveting show about time-travel encourages pupils to change the way we manage the earth's dwindling resources. Douglas Blane reports
When planes first started flying over Antarctica, the penguins were so fascinated that many of them followed the machines intently with their eyes until they toppled over backwards onto the ice. Or so the pilots said.
It's an endearing image that comes to mind as 80 pupils gaze upwards to catch a glimpse of an aeroplane that exists, not in the real world of Dunard Primary, in Glasgow, but in the imaginary one convincingly created in the school hall by two young actors, Duncan Kidd and Sarah MacGillivray.
Future Earth, the new school show from Generation Science, Edinburgh International Science Festival's touring programme, is the story of a young woman on a mission from the future to gather materials that will make life easier for her family back home.
For some reason, metals or plastics don't exist in her world, so everything is made out of glass or wood. There are no household appliances and life is tough. So all that precious metal in the sky astonishes Alu when she glimpses a plane through the window of the flat belonging to young Tom - which she has been ransacking for raw materials in the shape of discarded cans and plastic bottles.
"I want to gather enough to make a washing-machine for my mum when I go home," she says.
The two young people embark on a series of adventures back in time. They see the birth of a tree, the extraction of metals from rocks and the initial formation out of living things of all the oil deposits in the world.
With the aid of a few simple props, two compelling performances from the principals and a recording of planes, birdsong and spooky subsea sounds, the story slowly unfolds, holding its young audience engrossed for 45 minutes. It paints pictures, such as the "big, stinking hole in the ground with seagulls everywhere" that is the destination of much of the precious raw materials we squander.
It engages the emotions. It carries the kids along. Close to 100 P4-7 pupils might be expected to show signs of restlessness well before the end, but at just the right dramatic moment the revelation hits Tom and the audience like the crash of a dustbin on a windy night.
"There are no metals or plastics in your world, Alu, because we used them all up!"
Tom realises that his world's selfishness has made life immeasurably harder for hers. But after a little soul-searching, the image of a hillside clad in tall green oaks, grown from acorns dropped accidentally by Alu in the past, gives him the insight and the answer.
"Don't you see? We can send stuff into the future, just like you did with those trees."
The show ends with the Dunard pupils sorting mixed rubbish into separate recycling boxes, on the start of its long journey into the future. "It's like we're posting the metals and plastics to Alu's world," Tom says.
Future Earth is a good science show - a gripping story and a memorable lesson. A critic might point to the only scientist being a computer called Chip, who makes very precise scientific statements in a cold, inhuman voice, while the audience identifies with the warm, funny, attractive humans. But it would be harsh to knock such a tightly constructed, enjoyable show.
Gayle Harris, the depute head, has no intention of doing so. "That was excellent," she says. "We'll be able to get lots from it in our lessons, because Generation Science gives you follow-up materials and activities. For us, it's as much about citizenship as science."
The pupils are equally enthusiastic. "I'm on our eco-school committee," says Holly (P6), "but there was lots I didn't know - like oil is made from little creatures that lived millions of years ago.
"We should be sorry we're using everything up for the future. We should do something about it."
The show brought home to Liam (P6) just how serious things already are. "I like the wild flowers in the spring and summer and I hate it when people just drop their cans in them. The play really did show you what will happen if we carry on like this," he says.
"But we don't need to."