Jacqueline Yallop joins pupils in discovering the forces of nature at Magna Science Adventure Centre
Is steel magnetic when it's hot? How does a submarine rise to the surface? How does a JCB move heavy loads? At Magna, a science adventure centre in a former steelworks in Rotherham, there's only one way to find out. Heat up a steel bar, sink the submarine and get your hands on those JCB gears.
In Magna's fire pavilion, a Year 7 group from Meden School in Warsop, near Mansfield, are watching while their theories about magnetism are put to the test. As the steel bar heats in the forge, they are confident they know about the arrangement of particles in a solid. "Let's see whether we can surprise you then," says enabler Brian McMillan.
Elsewhere, the submarine and the JCB are also being put through their paces as part of the key stage 3 workshops on forces. "There's only so much you can do in the classroom," says Pat Kennedy, senior technician at Meden School. "You can describe a pulley system, for example, but once the children see it working then they really remember it."
The workshops are a popular introduction to what might otherwise be a bewildering experience. The vast building which houses Magna is 350 metres long with a disused electric arc furnace at its centre, and four pavilions - earth, air, fire and water - looming out of the darkness in flashes of neon.
In the Big Melt multimedia show, the glory of the steelworks, which once held the world record for steel production by electric furnaces, is brought briefly to life, but even entering the building when it's quiet and still, visitors can be overawed by the cathedral-like space.
"It has real emotional impact," says Magna's education manager Stuart Ballard. The wow-factor continues into the individual pavilions. "I liked getting wet," says Rebecca Roach, who has been pumping water up a series of massive pipes. Classmate Cole Burrage disagrees. "Working the digger is best. You actually see how to control it. And trust me, it's difficult."
The fire tornado, whooshing floor-to-ceiling in the middle of the fire pavilion, is another major attraction. It's this kind of varied response which Magna tries to encourage. "It appeals to all kinds of different learning styles," says Stuart Ballard. "Some things are hands-on but others are thought-provoking, or rely on body movement. But they all encourage you to get involved."
Even the "kitchen-sink show", which takes a deliberately low-tech look at science, has its fair share of pops, bangs and flashes: everything from icing-sugar bombs to home-made lava lamps and water rockets. "It's quite messy," admits Ballard, who has just received a particularly warm round of applause for setting fire to a pound;5 note soaked in a mixture of meths, water and salt.
Although most of the exhibits are aimed at science and technology KS2 and 3, there are opportunities for older groups to work on leisure and tourism projects - on everything from the financial and marketing plans on which the attraction is run to the health and safety implications of hands-on activities.
Winner of the Stirling Prize for architecture in 2001, Magna also runs specialist art, design and architecture events. The rise and decline of the steel industry and the regeneration of the area are used for history and geography at KS2 and 3.
For the group from Meden School, today is about the forces that make the world go round. "It's much easier now I've seen it," says Jonluke Kemp. "It makes science seem different. More fun." Which, according to Stuart Ballard, is what it's all about. "A visit should get children motivated. It challenges their ideas about science. We try to get them thinking. A sense of curiosity lasts a lifetime."
* Group rate pound;5.50 per child
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Magna Science Adventure Centre
Sheffield Road Templebrough Rotherham S60 1DX Tel: 01709 720002