Hands-on activities fuel a passion for Planet Earth

1st August 2008 at 01:00

All of a sudden the blue calm of the polar regions is rent by a flock of little yellow lifeforms that burst through the door and quickly spread to fill the space with squeals.

A closer look reveals there are just 15 of them. They are tiny tots clad in primrose waistcoats, on their first outing to Our Dynamic Earth in Edinburgh.

Nursery nurse Graham Wylie keeps a watchful eye on the youngsters and patiently stoops to catch a steady stream of communications about what the massive ice sculpture does to little hands pressed bravely against it.

"It's soooo cold."

"My hand got stuck."

"I can't feel my fingers."

This visit has educational motivations, Mr Wylie explains. "We've been working on planets and the environment. They are really interested in looking after the Earth, and we recycle. We're having a great time here; there's so much to see. I especially like the magic planet."

One of several new or recently revamped exhibits at the visitor destination that annually attracts an equal mix of Edinburgh citizens, UK residents and foreign tourists, the magic planet is a see-through sphere on which the features of any planet, and many moons, can be projected at the push of a button.

"You can drain the oceans and discover plate tectonics," says science director Stuart Monro. "You can see the circulation of planets' atmospheres. You can look at populations changing. You can study what happens when sea-levels rise. Climate change means large areas of Bangladesh, for instance, will be flooded. That will lead to migration - which has usually meant wars."

It is a good example of an ongoing shift in emphasis at the centre, says Dr Monro. "Increasingly we'll provide more of the science behind the experiential learning and of the social implications of what we're doing.

"Our aim has always been to take people who don't know much earth science and move them on. But there is much more awareness of environmental issues than when we first opened."

With a firmer foundation, the structure can be built that bit higher, he says. "We used to present the polar regions as a wonderful place. Now we also show the evidence for climate change. We ask about the implications of what science tells us. That leads to how we can make a difference."

The Scottish Government's recent redistribution of funding among the science centres has given Our Dynamic Earth a lengthier perspective, says Dr Monro.

"We now have three years' secure funding. That lets us plan ahead. The science is changing all the time and so is the technology that lets us convey that science."

Our Dynamic Earth differs from other science centres in that each exhibit is part of a big story, he says. "That constrains us, but it also helps the learning. During each visit, people might look at different things but they can relate each of these to the whole story."

The challenge for the next three years, says Dr Monro, is to develop exhibits while maintaining the story's integrity. "I would like to use 3D film footage to take people to different parts of the Earth - to let them stand on the savannah, for instance, among tall grass and lions."

More will be made of Scottish - indeed Edinburgh - scientists whose work was seminal, such as "the guy who began it all", James Hutton, and also Arthur Holmes, who established the age of the Earth using radioactive dating. This links nicely with a number of new learning outcomes in the science curriculum.

Partnerships will be further developed - with Edinburgh University, the Royal Observatory, Edinburgh, the Scottish Seabird Centre and the Edinburgh International Science Festival - to enhance the experience for all ages.

"We have the advantage that earth science is intrinsically exciting," says Dr Monro. "Volcanoes explode. Things get eaten by dinosaurs. But behind it there's this fantastic chemistry, good physics and really interesting biology.

"Curriculum for Excellence isn't just about what teachers can deliver. Places like Our Dynamic Earth have a vital role in enthusing children, delivering CPD, making connections and building teachers' confidence."

- www.dynamicearth.co.uk.

Sound science by Good Vibrations

In a large tent outside Our Dynamic Earth, a tall man in a black tie and a young woman in cycling shorts, pink ankle-boots and knee-length stripy socks are about to make a lot of noise.

"She was fantastic in Falkirk," the maestro announces, "amazing in Aberfeldy and brilliant in Berwick. Now she's going to be excellent in Edinburgh. Please welcome my wonderful assistant, Bella."

The pair of performers take the applause and the maestro sets the scene: "What is music?"

"Music is sound," Bella replies confidently.

"What is sound?"

"Sound is .," she peters out. "It is . Oh, I don't know. What is sound?"

During the next hour the Generation Science double act answers this fundamental question in interesting, interactive and amusing ways. Transmission of sound through solids, liquids and gases, with molecules played onstage by volunteers from the audience, is especially effective.

Physics concepts such as amplitude and frequency are related to their effects on ears and brain - volume and pitch - through the use of gongs, guitars and a didgeridoo as tall as Bella, which very nearly ends her when she tries to blow it.

Mark Kidd and Nicky McCabe are accomplished actors, who manage the tricky transitions between entertainment and science exposition really well. Good double acts often amuse each other incidentally without losing their audience, and this happens several times during the Good Vibrations show. It is infectious.

The performers are not scientists but they have been well schooled. So, sound science is being delivered entertainingly to children and parents, as it is all around Our Dynamic Earth.

"I've been to plenty of shows at the Edinburgh Festival that weren't as good as that," says mum Sue Lloyd, as she recovers from the experience of being a vibrating molecule.

- `Good Vibrations' and `Future Earth' (reviewed in TESS, March 7) outreach shows by Generation Science are being staged until August 10 in a marquee at Our Dynamic Earth


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