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Things that go 'hoot' in the night;Curriculum

Judy Mackie joins a group of Aberdeen children on a journey of discovery at the city's natural history museum.

A group of children sits earnestly examining the rubbery wings of dead bats, surrounded by assorted skeletons and silent, beady-eyed owls. No, it's not a scene from a Harry Potter book, or a Hallowe'en play - it's just another day in the Conoco Natural History Centre, at the University of Aberdeen.

For the participants in the "Things That Go Hoot In the Night" workshop, the opportunity to handle a real fruit bat - albeit pickled in alcohol - is one of the coolest events of the morning. That, and seeing a freshly-thawed tawny owl being sliced open to reveal its muscles and breastbone.

Then there are the tiny shrew and vole bones picked out of diluted owl pellets, and mounted on cardboard to take home, and the chance to rummage through the motley collection of stuffed reptiles, seabirds, rabbits, deer, fish, and the rattling bones of rhinos, ducks and whales.

In fact, the entire workshop is a huge hit with all the youngsters present - including the girl with the nosebleed and the boy who nearly faints at the touch of a dead tawny owl.

Mandy Tulloch, the centre's development co-ordinator has the knack of being matter-of-fact about bringing dead mammals out of jars, while making the whole experience seem magical. Careful to explain that the bats died naturally in the caves of Sri Lanka and were brought back to Aberdeen by students on study leave, she points out the features which make them expert fliers.

The focus of today's workshop is how nocturnal animals see, what they eat and how they catch it. Other topics during the October break were Snug Bugs (how do animals survive outside all winter?), and Rotters and Rogues (discover the secret world beneath our feet and the amazing goings-on of slippery, slimy creatures!). But throughout term time, for primary and secondary school teachers and their pupils, the amazing world of the Conoco Natural History Centre is at their disposal.

"We tend not to stick to rigid sessions, but give teachers the chance to develop their own activities using the centre's classroom, the Zoology Museum and the nearby Cruickshank Botanic Garden, as resources to complement their curriculum topics," explains Mandy Tulloch.

Primary teachers are offered a list of activity suggestions geared towards the Understanding Living Things and Processes of Life strands of environmental studies, including My Body (study of human skeletons), Plants and Seeds (flower structure revealed by microscopes, seed dispersal and insect pollenators), Feathers and Flight (feather structure, insect and mammal flight), Minibeasts (pond-dipping, land minibeasts) and Trees (soil experiments, the Decay Game). Visits normally last two hours, and sessions can be divided into half-hour blocks to allow completion of four different activities by each pupil.

Taster sessions on zoology and plant and soil science (with or without teachers) are also offered to senior secondary pupils interested in the natural sciences and in finding out more about the university experience.

The Conoco-sponsored Centre, which is managed by former teacher and environmental educationist Paul Doyle, was launched in 1995, the university's quincentennial year, with the aim of opening up the fascinating resources of the zoology museum and botanic garden to the public.

It averages around seven school visits a week. Visits are free, and all schools can apply for Scottish Natural Heritage transport awards of up to 50 per cent.

The workshops take place in the classroom (scene of the marvellous assortment of beasties, birds and bones), the vast and beautiful garden, or in the museum itself, a testament to Victorian creature collectors, with its glass cases of stuffed and skeletal exotic animals, and drawer upon drawer of brightly-coloured butterflies, beetles and other creepy crawlies.

"Some teachers ask us to give the children a free rein to explore the museum; others prefer a more structured visit, with worksheet tasks such as listing all the exhibits with horns, tusks, or feathers," says Ms Tulloch.

By far the most popular exhibit at the Natural History Centre at present is the pair of magnificent stuffed tigers.

One is a gift from HM Customs amp; Excise, and sits regally below another tiger, which was stuffed last century and whose eyes and cheeks bulge menacingly, but not at all naturally. "We point out to our visitors that this contrast is a good example of the difference in attitudes shown by the Victorians and ourselves towards wild beasts," she adds. "We also explain that most of the animals here were killed by people living in a time and culture very different from our own, but that since we have them, we can learn a great deal from them."

Conoco Natural History Centre, free to all visitors, is based at the University of Aberdeen's Zoology Building, Tillydrone Avenue, Aberdeen, tel: 01224 493288, email: Web pages: are encouraged to arrange a visit to the museum at least two weeks prior to any class visit.

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