Gary Hayden visits a science centre where chemistry is a thrilling experience that begins as soon as pupils get off the bus
Victorian chemist William Gossage developed cheap ways of producing soap, patented a process for producing caustic soda, and invented a "gas scrubber" to cut down on chemical pollution. In the 1890s he took over an alkali factory in Widnes and turned it into a soap works, which grew to be one of the largest and most successful in England.
The factory is long gone, but his legacy lives on with the Catalyst Science Discovery Centre, which occupies the site. The science discovery centre is the only one in Europe to have chemistry as its main theme. It's located near Mersey Estuary, Manchester Ship Canal, Spike Island nature reserve, Runcorn-Widnes Bridge, and Widnes's surviving chemical industry. A trip up the glass elevator to the Observatory affords great views of the natural and industrial landscape.
Year 8 pupils from Collegiate High School Sports College in Blackpool are here for the view and to find out more about the chemical world. As they step of the buses one boy exclaims, "Phwoar, what's that smell?" He and his classmates are experiencing the distinctive aroma of the nearby chemical factories.
The students spend the morning enjoying Partying Particles - a presentation given by education officer Clodagh Cherry. Using unit 7G (particle model of solids, liquids and gases) from the chemistry curriculum as her starting point, she creates a fast-paced interactive show. An egg is "fried" in liquid nitrogen, but soon returns to its liquid state. Pupils race liquids of different viscosities against one another. Gravity-defying bubbles hover in a tank of carbon dioxide. A bicycle inner-tube is frozen and then shattered. A deflated balloon mysteriously re-inflates itself. A frozen tomato is used to beat-out the tune to EastEnders. Pupils mix PVA and borax to produce slime.
It's great entertainment with a serious purpose. Pupils are challenged to explain what they see in terms of the particle model of solids, liquids and gases.
"When designing the show, I began with the demands of the curriculum, rather than just putting together demonstrations that I enjoy doing," says Clodagh. "Everything links back to the particle model."
The pupils are impressed and are eager to join in with the interactive elements of the show, and discuss the relevant scientific concepts.
As well as organising special events such as Partying Particles, the museum has four exhibition areas: Chemicals for Life, Eco Quest, Birth of an Industry, and the award-winning Scientrific - hands-on chemistry-related activities ranging from splitting a molecule to melting a crystal.
There is an impressive selection of shows and workshops for pupils in key stages 1 to 4. New for 2005 is the KS2 revision workshop where pupils solve The Case of the Mysterious Material, and the Not-so-Rotten Rubbish Show about reducing, re-using and recycling.
There are also a variety of topic trails. Pupils in KS1 can explore Science of the Senses, Materials or Healthy Humans, while pupils in KS3 can explore Science and Technology, Maths or Industry.
Rather than following a set topic trail, Collegiate High School pupils explore the exhibits and activities that interest them most. The absurdly complex network of pipes and chimneys surrounding the nearby chemical factories attracts one girl's attention. "How does anyone keep track what's going on down there?" How indeed?
* Entry: pound;2.50 per pupil. Special events and shows: pound;3.50 per pupil. Workshops: pound;2.50 per pupil, plus pound;35 for a class of up to 36 pupils. Entry is free for teachers and this includes admission to the Taster Open Day on January 23, when their families can also visit for free