White knuckles and maths magic

21st September 2001 at 01:00
At Oakwood, magical maths complements the thrills and spills of the rides. Nicki Household reports.

Most teachers come clean. They tell the pupils that their day out at Oakwood theme park in Pembrokeshire will include a couple of hours of learning activities. A few cowards don't and probably get away with it. After all, the park's education programme may not be as thrilling as the white-knuckle rides school groups also go on during the day, but it looks like fun, not schoolwork.

This is only the second year Oakwood has run educational visits. "The initiative came from schools themselves," says the park's publicity officer, Beverley Mortimer. "Teachers would ring up and ask if we could provide worksheets for kids to use during their visit and we became aware that the attitude to class outings had changed. The old idea of a "jolly" has gone. These days teachers need an educational reason to come and visit us, so we do our best to provide a quality curriculum-based package."

The number of school visits to Oakwood has doubled. "It's the direction the whole industry is moving in," Mortimer explains. "School visits are important to us during term-time because parents no longer take their children out of school for a day out, so the park would be under-used on weekdays if schools didn't come." Theme parks and teaching go well together, she maintains, "because children are in a fun mood when they come here, which makes them very receptive to what's on offer."

Permanent resources at Oakwood include the Techniquest science discovery centre, with 30 high-tech interactive exhibits where children push buttons to make astonishing 'natural' things happen. A ball miraculously stays in the air, supported only by air streams above and below it. You turn a handle to make electricity split water into hydrogen and oxygen gas and then a hydrogen rocket takes off. A moving globe demonstrates how the sun lights up different areas of the earth at different times.

For key stage 1 groups, Oakwood's new (and first) education officer, Andrea Ayres, delivers a lively presentation called Science from the Toybox. This focuses on how different toys are powered - clockwork, springs, batteries, gravity, air and elastic bands. At one point the children stand in a circle all holding hands and provide the "wiring" to make a large battery light up a huge torch bulb.

The science is real, but the emphasis is on having fun and solving apparent mysteries.

The key stage 2 presentation, Pushes and Pulls, uses balloons, skateboards, magnets, a tug of war and a seat of nails to investigate the forces of attraction and reaction.

Oakwood also hosts various educational "specials". In June there was the Horrible Histories Funhouse of Fear, a quirky journey through the Cut-throat Celts, the Terrible Tudors and the Vile Victorians.

In September Mathamagic visited Oakwood. This hands-on maths experience for key stage 3 attracted over 8,000 visitors when it was at the Techniquest science discovery centre in Cardiff Bay. It begins with a 45-minute maths presentation, mainly of intriguing mathematical "tricks". For example, throw two dice, multiply the top of one by the bottom of the other (or vice versa), and the answer will always be 49. Or think of a number under ten, write it down three times (ie 333, 666, 999), then divide it by three times itself and the answer is always 37.

It's a highly interactive presentation with giant props and lots of audience participation.

Afterwards the children spend around an hour in the exhibition area, trying their hand at various large-scale, hands-on mathematical games, puzzles and challenges. For example, arrange 18 Coca Cola bottles in a crate so that each row and each column has an even number of bottles. Or use pegs and elastic bands to work out how many handshakes there'd be if everyone in a group of people shook hands with everyone else. Or create a platonic solid, like an octahedron or a dodecahedron, from their flat versions.

Visiting maths advisors invited to preview the exhibition were impressed. Diane Williams, representing five secondary schools in the Vale of Glamorgan, was struck by the enthusiasm the teaching show generated. "The ideas were very good and the children actually groaned when it finished - even the wise guys at the back!

"Although it's entertainment and not a lesson, it covers a lot of useful ground. And even the quieter, shyer children seemed keen to take part in the experiments."

Maths adviser John Commissiong commented on how engrossed the children became in the puzzles and challenges. "I think there's enormous benefit in seeing maths applied outside the classroom in fun and realistic situations. Also, it gives children who may not be academic but have good spatial awareness a chance to come into their own. Mathamagic could make teachers see some of their 'less able' pupils with new eyes." He also feels that teachers' own credibility goes up when they join in puzzles and activities with their pupils.

What Oakwood is famous for is its rides. The Bounce is "the UK's only shot 'n' drop tower coaster".

Megafobia is a pound;1.7 million wooden roller coaster. And Vertigo is a terrifying thing, a "sky coaster" 50 metres high.

Then there are less death-defying attractions such as a bob sleigh run, go-karts, a water chute, a swinging pirate ship, a boating lake and gentler activities for younger children.

You might think that with all that outside children would be desperate to escape from the learning zone. But they seemed intrigued and absorbed by Oakwood's educational offerings.

ContactOakwood, Canaston Bridge, Narberth, Pembrokeshire SA67 8DE. Tel: 0845 345 5667. Email: b.mortimer@oakwood-leisure. com Web: www.oakwood-leisure.com Educational packages available Mon-Fri (term time only), pound;7.95 per secondary pupil, pound;6.95 per primary pupil.Similar attractionsAlton Towers in north Staffordshire.Tel: 01538 702200. Thorpe Park in Surrey. Tel: 0870 444 446

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