To the lighthouse

18th July 1997 at 01:00
A home-grown science project is now a beacon for Wales. Susannah Kirkman reports

Have you ever wondered why pay and display machines never give change, especially when you can only find a mixture of notes and 2p coins in your wallet? Or why a tennis ball bounces? Children following the science trail devised by the Mumbles Science 2000 Centre in Wales have worked out solutions to both these modern conundrums (answers at the end of the article).

The aim of the Mumbles Science 2000 project is simple: to help primary-age children enjoy learning about science and technology. The science trail is just one of the ways in which the scheme, which became a registered charity a year ago, tries to capture children's interest and enthusiasm.

A Science 2000 roadshow visits schools and out-of-school clubs. The Mumbles Centre also runs a holiday play scheme and organises science "events" in which whole families participate.

All the activities give children hands-on experience of using science and technology. Unusually, the impetus for the project has come from parents. Gill Webber, one of the founders, explains: "Teachers often don't have the background or the resources to make science and technology exciting. The national curriculum doesn't allow schools to spend enough time on these subjects and many children find them boring."

The project started as a school science club set up by Gill and two other friends in the parents' association at their local primary. The club still meets every other week on a Saturday, and activities have included a beach pollution survey, and visits to nature reserves and bird sanctuaries. But when other schools started clamouring for something similar, the parents decided to set up a full-time science project. Andy Shercliff, who has an engineering background and was one of the parents originally involved, now works full time running the charity from his home. "There is tremendous enthusiasm for hands-on, problem-solving activities like the ones Mumbles Science 2000 offers," he says. "Primary schools are telling us that this is exactly what they need."

Andy Shercliff spent a lot of time consulting local schools and scrutinising the national curriculum before drawing up a programme of activities which would tie in with it. The one-day science "events" have been particularly popular. One of the challenges was to build an imaginary Mumbles dinosaur which had managed to adapt to 20th-century living.

One of Andy's favourites is the Eatosaur, which lives on chocolate cake. For the Great Escape, held at a local castle, families had to pretend they were under siege and build a machine to help them get away, and children attending the Mousetrap "event" had to design a humane machine for catching an imaginary plague of rodents. The centre tries to bring themes to life by linking them to the local environment: as well as a castle, Mumbles has a working lighthouse and the oldest passenger railway in the world.

Science 2000 also runs a play scheme for five to 11-year-olds during holidays. The programme includes the usual table tennis and painting, but there are also plenty of activities related to science, technology and maths.

The Science roadshow regularly visits schools to involve pupils in scientific and technological problem-solving. At Grange Primary School in Swansea, eight and nine-year-old pupils were designing lighthouses with K'Nex, an American plastic construction system, using their knowledge of electrical circuits to build a working light.

The children are totally absorbed. "I've enjoyed thinking about the shape and how to fix things on and make the circuit work," says nine-year-old Ian Leaves. Andy Shercliff thinks the activities make science more meaningful: "At the end, they've made a lighthouse instead of a boring old electrical circuit."

The roadshow leader is Julie Samuel, who has a first-class degree in mathematical engineering. "A lot of teachers are unneccessarily nervous of science," she says. "I think you explain things differently if you are not frightened by it." But she says both sides have learned from the roadshows; the teachers have gained confidence and some technological expertise, and workshop leaders have learned how to make a class pay attention.

One of the keys to the project's success is the involvement of scientific and engineering professionals - Science 2000 has used environmental biologists, engineers and zoologists. Many are students and student teachers recruited from Swansea University and the Swansea Institute of Higher Education. Curricular advice has come from advisory teachers and academic scientists.

Other professionals have been temporarily "donated" by local companies. For example, a chemical engineer from BP has taken the roadshow to several Welsh-speaking schools. Science 2000 has also been encouraging support from local businesses. Pig troughs, art straws and computers have all been donated and a local solicitor helped with the application for charitable status. The South Wales Evening Post prints and distributes Science 2000's newspaper, The Mumbles Seagull, which publicises the project's activities.

Coopers Lybrand have advised on grant applications. Last year, the centre attracted almost Pounds 19,000 of private-sector funding, which helps to keep costs down. A roadshow visit costs only Pounds 75 to Pounds 85, less than employing a supply teacher for the day.

"In our close-knit, rather isolated, community there is a conviction that science and technology are important," Andy Shercliff explained. "Most of the new industrial and business investment goes further east to Cardiff and Newport, so there's also the feeling that, if we don't help ourselves, no one else will."

For further information, contact: Andy Shercliff, centre director, Mumbles Science 2000 Centre, 40 Caswell Road, Caswell, Swansea SA3 4SD. Tel: 01792 360095; fax: 01792 363395.Solutions: pay and display machines don't give change because it saves the authority money and they don't have to put fresh change in the machines so often. A tennis ball bounces because the rubber and the air inside the ball are compressed when it hits something. As the air and rubber return to their original volume, the ball is forced upwards.

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