Star turn

24th June 2005 at 01:00
A trip to what was once the Royal Observatory is now full of exciting hands-on science activities, writes Penny Cottee

"We need more water!" squeal the children. "Who's holding up the water?"

Pupils playing on the water circuit, with its inter-connected pumping devices, quickly realise that keeping things flowing is a team effort. The ingenious outdoor display, with its series of hand-turned pumps, bucket lifts, water wheels and an Archimedes screw, simultaneously offers a fun experience and a demonstration of centuries-old water management systems.

That's the principle behind The Observatory Science Centre in Herstmonceux, where pupils from Cuxton Community Junior School in Kent are enjoying a day's visit. In the outdoor Discovery Park, the pupils are experimenting with the giant-scale displays. Two Year 4 boys swing on a rope attached to an enormous lever, attempting to lift a colossal weight off the ground, while other pupils roll over-sized ball-bearings down steel tracks or try to balance on a shifting plinth. "The children are engaged and absorbed," says headteacher David Brignell, who has brought all the school's 175 pupils to the centre. "This type of interactivity enthuses them about learning. There's a real buzz here."

A futuristic-looking site dominated by the huge green domes of the now-dormant telescopes, Herstmonceux observatory nestles in stunning countryside. For 60 years, it was part of the Royal Greenwich Observatory.

This was set up by King Charles II in 1675, but moved to Herstmonceux in the 1930s when light pollution in London became too bad.

Continuing light interference and cheap air travel meant that the telescopes were relocated again in 1984, this time to the Canary Islands.

The Observatory left Herstmonceux in 1990 and the centre is now run by an educational charity, Science Projects, which promotes science through hands-on exhibits.

Jo Harris, educational director at the centre, says: "We were awarded Heritage lottery funds to renovate the telescopes and we now offer tours of the domes for those studying astronomy and space. We always work with schools to focus on their particular needs."

Two years ago, the centre also started a team challenge for Year 7 and above where pupils are given projects to complete in timed competitions.

Today's visitors are free to look at the permanent exhibit housed in one of the domes, but they have not booked the telescope tour this time.

After the Discovery Park, pupils move indoors to the Hands-On Corridor, with its 90-plus exhibits demonstrating light and colour, force and gravity, time, the senses, and the Earth. Again, the emphasis is on getting stuck in - and the pupils don't need to be asked twice. The area becomes a blur of noise and movement, as they ping rubber balls up to the ceiling, turn handles to wind miniature trains on tracks, test their sense of time, guide plastic balls through hoops on currents of air, and plenty more.

Next, pupils split for either bridge building or the science show. Bridge building sees groups putting together and dismantling a large model bridge.

The science show, run by a young, white-coated "Professor", has the children gripped. He tears headlong through a string of hilarious, and sometimes explosive experiments. Using household items such as eggs, cornflour, oil, buckets and plastic bottles, he whisks pupils through centrifugal force, density, air pressure and inertia.

The centre's aim of proving that science can be fun seems to have worked.

One tired but happy Year 6 pupil says: "I thought it would be boring because it's all about science, but actually it was really interesting."


The Observatory Science Centre Herstmonceux, Hailsham, East Sussex BN27 1RN Tel: 01323 832731 Email:

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