Eden, Eureka, Gaia, Magna, Odyssey, Sensation, Techniquest - interactive centres are spreading rapidly. They are exciting, stimulating, and packed with resources no school could dream of. It seems obvious children should learn a lot from their visits. But evaluating schools' use of some interactive centres suggests that children don't learn nearly as much as teachers hope.
There are many reasons for this. Time is limited. Most school parties arrive late. Co-ordinating large groups is complex, and left to themselves most children move about, attention unfocused, pressing buttons without reading instructions and returning frequently to their favourite spots. Clipboards and worksheets are poorly used or seen as a nuisance. There are many distractions. The size and busyness makes it easy for children to disappear, and there are always shops, cafes, lifts, escalators and other children.
But they are amazing places, and all the children we have followed have enjoyed their visits. Most come away with very positive feelings and vivid images. However, the keys to effective learning are preparation, organisation and mediation.
Preparing teachers and adults means knowing what the place has to offer to children of different ages. You need to be clear about your objectives - A day out? The Wow factor? Science learning? Citizenship?
You may have clear learning goals, but the accompanying adults may see it as a "trip". The 'Wow!' factor may suffer if children are constantly marshalled and moved from place to place to do specific things. And the "big picture" may get lost. Children literally have to "feel" the tropical rain forest at Eden, before they can focus on the food, clothing and plants there.
The big idea in most centres is "hands-on". So everyone needs to have a clear idea of how hands-on works and why it helps learning. Adults, not just children, have to be prepared. Teachers, assistants and parents ought to focus children on the things they will learn from.
Adults need to be briefed to ask good questions - "Can you see that?" "Have you looked at this?" "What does a widget look like?" "What if it rains?" "How might you get inside?" Learning alongside children is good, as long as everyone knows what they want children to learn. That means evaluating the activity sheets most centres provide on their websites. Are they at the right level? Will we have time to complete them? What will we miss by using them?
Children need "learning to learn" skills. They will meet many new adults, so young children especially need to know who to listen to. All children need to see examples of the kind of visual information they will meet in advance. They need to practise "reading" information and instructions.
Children need to talk about what they expect to find before they go. At Eden, we met children who expected to see volcanoes, dinosaurs and monkeys.
Organisation will stop hands-on time being eaten away by collecting groups together, listening to instructions, storing bags and clothing, walking from place to place, toilets, lunch, ice creams and the shop. Large groups in coaches almost always arrive late and leave early. So don't try to do everything in a day. Have a limited objective, probably a "big picture" perspective, for your first visit.
The bigger the group, the more crowd control takes up time. A whole school, with over 100 children, will probably have a lovely day out. But they will not learn much and the adults will come home frazzled.
Mediation of "hands-on" means sharing sensory experiences. The most likely to be remembered are things like the "feel" of the tropical rain forest, the forces on a treadmill, the manipulation of a digger arm, or the smell and taste of food plants.
But without adult mediation much will be missed. As one eight-year-old told us: "I enjoyed it better with my mum and dad than with the school, because I saw more and missed less." An adult to child ratio of 1:4 or better is therefore essential.
For a productive visit, children must hear "you can". Education staff at centres are excellent at this, but they are usually seriously over-worked. So teachers and other adults have to take this role. And the right follow-up matters. Interactive centres are special one-off places. Children may see them as something apart. Making connections to their experience is vital. It is awesome to watch the electric arc furnace at Magna. But children need to know where they use steel and why steelworks are being closed.
Our strongest impression, having interviewed many children after their visits, is how their learning is limited by the knowledge they bring to the visit. One inner-city group vividly remembered Eden's Malaysian house in its lush kitchen garden. But they were sure the people living there got their food from the shop. Others thought they "fed Cola to the plants".
Alan Peacock is a reader in primary science education in the school of education and lifelong learning at the University of Exeter