Less talking, more exploration

4th September 2009 at 01:00
Toilet rolls become mesmerising and magical when used in a science show for children. Emma Seith also found it illuminating

It's amazing what you can do with a wheel made from cardboard and coloured Cellophane, a drill, a spotlight, a wind machine and several toilet rolls.

First, you must attach the wheel to the drill so it spins faster than you could ever hope to propel it, place it in front of the spotlight and then use the wind machine to send reams of toilet roll billowing out in front of the light.

The audience gazes mesmerised at the result, as rainbow-coloured ribbon shoots out over their heads, winding and weaving in the air above them. They are further enchanted when shredded toilet paper is blown into the air in front of the light, causing rainbow-coloured snowdrops to fall from the sky. The urge to touch them, even for an adult, is acute and for the children, at whom this show is aimed, it is simply too much. They jump up and down, laughing and snatching at them as they fall.

This is one of the live demonstrations performed by science communication company Science Made Simple. The organisation performed its show, Visualise Reloaded, at this year's Edinburgh Fringe Festival and this month has several more Scottish dates in the calendar.

Big words and lengthy explanation of scientific phenomena can confuse. So, to make their shows palatable for children as young as six, Science Made Simple came up with a solution - they don't speak. Instead, they use a mix of physical theatre, demonstrations, projected images and music. Less explanation; more exploration, as they put it.

Nevertheless there are resources to allow teachers to take the concepts further, back in the classroom. These explain, for instance, how toilet roll is transformed into rainbow ribbon and snowflakes: "When something moves very quickly through the changing light it is lit up at different points by the different colours. Your brain puts this information together and you see rainbow streaks at the object's edge. This works best with a white object as they reflect the most light."

The background information for teachers also explains that white light can be broken up into its constituent colours when shone through a glass prism (in the show, this is explored by looking at what happens to light when it travels through a piece of broken glass). And it explains how primary colours combine to form other colours (in the show, this is done by mixing different coloured lights).

The cast of two also create their own vortex using two plastic bottles and send smoke rings (a special kind of vortex) into the audience. They make smoke rings by filling bins with smoke from a smoke machine. The top of the bin is covered in a tight rubber film; the bottom has a circular hole cut in it. One mighty whack on the drum-like end sends a smoke ring shooting out the other. Such is the size, speed and apparent density of the rings as they hurtle towards you, you have to fight the urge to duck.

Again the teacher notes explain how the effect is created: "When air comes out a hole suddenly, it is slowed down at the edges. This creates a circular motion around the edges of the hole, which creates the ring shape."

All experiments are carried out by a male and female clown who spend the show locked in battle, trying to out-do and undo each other.

Science Made Simple's non-verbal approach to science education came about when the Welsh organisation received a growing number of invitations to take their work abroad. "Our standard shows were didactic and science- orientated," says Gareth Smith, the stage and technical manager, also a clown.

"We spent a lot of time thinking about the right level of language for different audiences. But when we were abroad and working in Thailand and Hong Kong, all our careful planning to hit the right level went out the window because we were relying on interpreters. So Wendy (Wendy Sadler, the founder) had the idea to see if we could develop a show without words."

The show has existed now for five years. In 2007 it formed part of the British Council's Beautiful Science project, visiting nine countries from Bulgaria to Israel; stopping off in Azerbaijan in-between.

They have performed at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe for the past two years, thanks to a Scottish Government science engagement grant and funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council. The money also enables them to take the show to Dundee and Aberdeen next month.

"As science and technology increase their reach, it's important for people to be scientifically literate, understand what's going on and recognise bunkum when they hear or see it," says Mr Smith.

Rhys Walden and Jonathan Cottrell-Mason, both 11, and from Cambridge, gave their verdict on Visualise Reloaded after they saw it at the Fringe. They enjoyed the show in parts, but felt they were a bit old for it. "It was a nice touch that they did not have words, but it did hinder what they could do," said Jonathan. "Some bits I couldn't understand because they couldn't communicate it."

Rhys said: "Experiments do make science more fun. It was great that you got to see things, but if it had talking, they could explain in more depth. I think maybe it was aimed at a slightly younger audience."

This child, however, would highly recommend it.


Visualise Reloaded will appear tomorrow at Dundee College's The Space and on September 13 at TechFest in Aberdeen.

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