Wonders of science in everyday life

14th April 2006 at 01:00
Miranda Fettes joins the fascinated crowds at the Edinburgh International Science Festival

Crawling into a giant nose and encountering Agent Bogey may not sound like a particularly appealing way to start the day. However, for children at the Edinburgh International Science Festival's flagship family venue, Wonderama, Up Yer Hooter acts as something of a magnet.

Wonderama, at the Assembly Rooms, is buzzing with all sorts of scientific activity for children aged 3 upwards. On the ground floor, a group is busy digging up dinosaur bones and trying to identify the mighty beast.

Upstairs, crime solving, electronic circuit making, keyhole surgery, DNA extraction from peas and much more is going on.

New this year is Dude, We Gotta Finish the CD, a show in which the audience record their own song in 25 minutes. Children are invited on stage to hit a gong, strum a guitar, blow into an organ pipe and speak some lyrics. With the addition of a backing track and a little electronic mixing and sound doctoring, the song is complete and the children are told they can go and download the song from the festival's website.

"We try to teach them a bit about vibrations and how soundwaves travel, so it's a bit of scientific knowledge," says Paul Beeson, one of the performers.

An area called Good Vibrations introduces children to the science of sound with various interactive devices, such as an electronic larynx designed for people with damaged vocal cords. When you hold it against your throat and mouth silent words, robotic speech emerges.

At the Light Fantastic area, children are learning some basic chemistry and physics. They see a copper solution burning with a green flame and a strontium mixture burning red. They are also shown how electricity travels, with plasma spheres and light sabre tubes.

Budding vets can learn all about animal treatments and surgery at the Vets ER workshop. The demonstrators are mostly students in veterinary and biomedical sciences. Some children are busy taking a urine sample from Felix the cat; others are trying to identify a mystery animal in a box and X-ray a dog.

Jonathan and Susannah Lee, aged 8 and 6, from London, are making sutures and learning about the different layers of skin.

"It's our second year here," says their mother, Alison Lee. "We have built the day around a few booked slots.

"We came up for this - we've coincided it with a trip to visit family - because it was so good last year. I don't think there's anything else like this."

Susannah particularly liked the ghost box photography. Children freeze for 20 seconds in two poses and the resulting ghostly figure can have four arms, four legs and two heads.

Jonathan enjoyed digging up the stegosaurus. "I learned about lots of different kinds of dinosaurs and fossils," he says.

In the Discovery Dome, children enter a giant nose and are led through the trachea into the left lung. A dry ice machine simulates cigarette smoke and the children are told to rush into the other lung. The children then encounter the fearful Dastardly Fag and the respiratory system suffers an asthma attack. The children are told to escape out of a nostril, down a green slide.

The older children can't get enough of the giant nose, but some of the younger children find it scary and emerge crying.

Hattie Harley, 9, from Dunbar, says: "It was very fun and it was good because it had this anti-smoking message."

In the ER Surgery, 12 children, dressed in surgeons' scrubs, are presented with a casualty, a hillwalker who has hurt his knee in the Highlands. One group is shown the mechanics of the knee and has to remove fragments of bone and cartilage by keyhole surgery; another makes plaster casts and, in the first aid area, a third group learns how to make a sling. Most of the demonstrators are nursing students at Napier University or volunteers from the British Red Cross.

Away from the operating theatre, dozens of children and parents are scattered around long tables, hard at work making electronic circuits in a soldering workshop. Children can pick a kit of components in the MadLab and make circuits for flashing lights, which children as young as 5 can do, to more advanced projects such as a lie detector, bugging device and robot.

Sue Miller, from Kirkton Manor near Peebles, in the Scottish Borders, has brought her daughters, Anna, 8, and Harriet, 6. "We've been every year for the past five years," she says. "There's so much to do. They haven't stopped all day and they're still concentrating."

At the CSI Murder Mystery area, children are presented with factsheets about the murder of pop singer Ricky Buffman and profiles of four suspects.

The children are ushered to the crime scene, where they see the outline of the body, blood on the floor and wall, a smashed picture, a glass, a handwritten note and a hammer mark in the blood on the wall.

They compare the four suspects' fingerprints with those found at the crime scene and use chromatography to identify whether any of the suspects' pens match the type of ink used in the note. The children also compare the marks of hammers found at the homes of two of the suspects with that found in the blood on the wall and test blood samples.

The festival's director, Simon Gage, points out that the festival fits with the Scottish Executive's national science strategy in communicating science to the public.

"We're showing children that the things that excite them can relate to science," Dr Cage says. "What's very obvious is children are enthralled by the technology presented.

"It's great to put them in situations to do things that they would never be able to do at home, like building an electronic circuit that's quite advanced or digging up dinosaur bones."

At the Royal Museum and the Museum of Scotland, Edinburgh University has put together its Discover Science programme for the festival, staffed by science PhD students. In the Science Zone on the second floor, there are viruses, bioluminescent bacteria, fungi and cave fish with no eyes, plus demonstrations of artificial intelligence, memory editing, mathematical puzzles and the science of bubbles.

Jan Barfoot, the event manager for Discover Science, says: "We've got lots of hands-on things that create a sense of wonder about all the diverse aspects of science.

"Biology is a popular subject at university but chemistry, physics and mathematics are suffering. One of the problems is children are not taking the subjects at school, so then they can't study science at university."

Colin Bartie, a lecturer in the philosophy of social science at Jewel and Esk Valley College, is visiting with his children, Liam, 13, and Annie, 11.

"It gets information across in a fun way, not like reading or in class," says Liam, who is an S2 pupil at Lasswade High. "In subject choices I've taken physics, chemistry and biology, so this is really helpful."

Also at the museum are talks for children aged 10 and over, run by museum staff, and theatre shows for children aged 7 plus.

At the Sci-Fun technology roadshow on the ground floor are hands-on exhibits. Children can stand inside a large tyre and a bubble is pulled up around their heads. There is a wave-making machine, an infrared camera, a human circuit and a chair on which children can sit and lift dumb-bells to demonstrate centrifugal forces.

The Royal Botanic Garden is also hosting various science festival events and workshops for children and families, including investigating biting plants, insect reproduction, extreme plant survival and phenology, the science of the seasons.

Edinburgh International Science Festival, until April 16 www.sciencefestival.co.ukbox office, tel 0131 557 5588Next week in Scotland Plus: Edinburgh International Science Festival launches a new venture, exploring the science of seduction and breakdance, to capture the interest of the 12-30 age group


* The festival attracts 70,000 people, 60,000 in family groups.

* It reaches a further 60,000 children aged 5-14 through touring science shows and workshops to schools across Scotland from February to June.

* It is supported by The TES Scotland.

* The festival costs pound;500,000 to run. Edinburgh City Council is the principal funder, providing pound;180,000. The Scottish Executive donates pound;30,000 and the rest is raised through sponsorship.

* There are 120 events at this year's festival.

* Venues include Wonderama at the Assembly Rooms, the Royal Museum and Museum of Scotland, the Royal Botanic Garden Edinburgh, the Museum of Flight in East Fortune, Our Dynamic Earth, Edinburgh Zoo and the Royal Observatory Visitor Centre.

* For teenagers and young adults, the festival is lauching a mini-festival, OneEighty, from April 13-15, exploring the science and technology in urban culture, with help from DJs, beatboxers, breakdancers and surf stars.

* A programme of 33 talks by eminent scientists cover topics such as how the brain works, climate change, astronomy, psychology, the science of sleep, hypnosis, cloning and hormones. Highlights for adults include Professor Ian Wilmut on cloning and drug discovery; Professor Steven Rose on the brain and mind manipulation; Professor Richard Wiseman on the science of illusion; and Will Whitehorn, the president of Virgin Galactic, on pioneering space tourism.

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