See me, feel me, touch me

10th February 2006 at 00:00
The senses provide the stimuli for an exhibition in Dundee which is proving a massive success and has pupils clamouring for more. Morag Fleming enjoys the experience

Ten thousand school pupils can't be wrong. This is the official number of pupils who pass through the Sensation door in Dundee each year, thus making it a hit. Included in that figure is a huge number of returnees as the varied and changing exhibits keep the schools coming back, again and again.

Today, I am accompanying some of those repeat customers; a group of P7s from Blackness primary school, which is only a short walk away. I follow them into the realms of the five senses - first human, then robotic.

"RoboRealm" opened in July last year and has been very popular.

The workshop these pupils are doing today is also robotic; they are programming their own robots to work using sensors. But first, the pupils enter the general area downstairs, which is packed with brightly-coloured toys, machines, computers, gadgets and exhibits designed to help the children understand the science behind the senses.

In this section the pupils try on bats' ears for size, play with mirrors and energy, and crawl up a huge model of a nose. Highlights include the thermal imaging camera which shows the children in terms of heat on a big screen, with yellow being the hottest, black the coldest. Annie Marrs, the senior interpreter, is there with ice cubes, which delighted pupils use to draw black squiggles on their red tummies and beards on their yellow faces.

Next is the circle of light beams shining out of the floor. Pretty to look at, until an unsuspecting person breaks the beam of light, which sets off a noise, triggering mild hysteria as the children run round stomping on the lights. Annie explains how it works and organises the group into a team to manage all the lights and see how quickly the pupils can douse them.

Competition, teamwork, science, fun; this is an educationist's dream. Along the way, Ailsa Gow, 11, explains why she likes Sensation so much: "You see, it's a good way to learn 'cos it's fun." It's hard to take her seriously, however, as her earnest face is framed by two huge mouse ears.

And on to "RoboRealm". Most of us are fascinated by robots and here they come in all shapes and sizes, along with information about how they work and practical uses for robots in the world today. There is a robot arm (such as those used in some factories) which will select the pieces you choose, put them in the right order to make a robot figure, then smugly take a bow before tidying away the pieces again ready for the next person.

There is a Robot Wars-style arena where robots with names such as Princess Platinum and Major Sprocket jostle and collide in their individual bids to collect bars, all controlled by the children.

There are robots hanging from the ceiling that quietly move along tracks until they are above you, giving you a fright by making R2D2-type noises in your ear. And there is a robot that moves along a meandering black line, never straying off it. The children ask how does it's done, thus inviting the science in... By far the most popular exhibit in "RoboRealm" is Beat the Robot. This can be done in three ways, all involving robotic senses or sensors. The first is an updated version of What's the time Mr Wolf? where the children creep up on the robot whose sensor detects anything other than very slow movement.

The second robot has vertical light beams protecting it and the pupils have to dodge them to find a path through.

The third robot has criss-cross light beams creating the kind of web seen protecting items of great value in many a film, from The Pink Panther to Ocean's Eleven. Children love this, perhaps because of the commando crawling involved. Incidentally, there are two settings for each of these challenges - difficult and impossible.

I grab a moment with Fiona Chan, the P7 teacher, to find out why she values Sensation. "It offers a facility that we can't provide and they are always coming up with something new," she says. "The staff are friendly and have a measure of control and they help them make the most of the exhibits. The pupils are always entertained and if they are entertained they are learning."

Finally, we have the "RoboLab" workshop. David Perkins, education officer, in the space of just an hour, teaches the P7s to programme their Lego robot to move around a course using sensors. The children are enthralled from the start. A series of basic programmes enables them to move the robots in different directions, including round corners, for specific periods of time. Bump sensors and light sensors tell them what to do when they encounter an obstacle, or a change from white to black on the floor. They suddenly realise that what their robots are doing is not dissimilar from what they saw previously... the robot on the black line, for example.

After a packed morning, the pupils head up the road and back to school, very happy. There is no doubt that they will be returning in coming months, especially as Sensation's newest exhibits, intriguingly titled Secret Sight and your Brilliant Brain, have just opened.; tel: 01382 228800

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