Gillian Thomas joins pupils from an East London school at a famous landmark and discovers there's more than history on offer
The Tower of London, because of its role in England's history during Tudor times, attracts around 70,000 students a year. But it's science rather than history that brings 30 Year 3 children from the Marion Richardson Primary School in Stepney, east London. They have come for a session on scientific separation. Installed at work benches in the education centre's "lab", the seven-year-olds are introduced to the subject of distillation by Mandy Martin-Smith, the Tower's science education officer. "Who's heard of Henry VIII and the explorer Sir Walter Raleigh?", she asks. "We're going to do an experiment that Sir Walter, one of the Tower's most famous prisoners, did to help pass his time here. It's called distillation."
The children have to imagine they are on board a ship that's running out of drinking water. With only sandy seawater surrounding them, what should they do? During a brief but clear explanation of how water can be boiled, cooled and collected to make it drinkable, she introduces technical terms such as flush, condenser and distillation apparatus. She then gets the children to kneel down around a giant diagram of a condenser on the floor. To illustrate how it works they have to label it with words such as salt, filter, steam and cold water.
It's time to put theory into practice; after they have watched a real Liebig condenser in operation, eight-year-old Farzana Sulthana says: "I couldn't believe my eyes when the salty and dirty water turned into plain."
The pupils also carry out a basic experiment themselves, separating out the colours of black ink from a blob on blotting paper.
The session ends with a visit to the "bloody Tower", where Raleigh was imprisoned with his family, and the children are surprised by the comfortable and spacious rooms.
As they leave, Sue Powell, a teacher at Marion Richardson, says: "The visit had a nice mixture of information and practical activities. I'll go over the work with the children in the classroom to reinforce what they saw.
They enjoy science and we try to keep a balance between practical and academic work. I think a memorable situation like this makes the lesson itself more memorable."
The Tower's education department recently introduced a programme of science options. Irene Davies, former education officer, who is now the Royal Armouries' operations manager, was responsible for this diversification.
"We want schools to see the Tower as more than just a medieval building with armour, weapons and the crown jewels on show," she says.
"Although it is overwhelmingly used as a history resource, there is enormous scope for using it in other ways, too." Having obtained funding for additional staff and equipment, including the Liebig condenser and a Hounsfield tensile testing machine, she is able to offer science-based visits that link to the curriculum up to GCSE and 16-plus level.
Raleigh's distillation experiments are the lead-in for "Changes of state" and "Solutions", while a replica of Henry VIII's longbow and mail armour are used as the basis for work on "Materials" at key stages 1-3. In addition, "Astronomy is awesome" is offered in conjunction with the Royal Observatory at Greenwich, and "Diet and disease" with the nearby Florence Nightingale Museum.
* Entry to the Tower costs pound;2.50 per pupil, plus pound;1 each for a teaching session. This must be booked at least one month in advance with the education centre. To mark the education department's 30th anniversary, an exhibition on its work is on display until Easter
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