Eyes widen as the reception class from Southridge First School, Whitley Bay, enters the Centre for Life in Newcastle city centre. The chromosome symbol replacing the 'f' in 'Life' gives the game away that this is a scientific look at life and the flashing lights and strange sounds emitting from the exhibition area certainly draw the children's curiosity. The new exhibition which forms part of the group's visit is called Our World and "explores the diversity of human life in the world today".
Two main areas are devoted to showing how all people have the same basic needs - for temperature regulation, food and safety, for example - and adapt their way of living accordingly. The desert and the Arctic are featured, with the chance to dress up in Inuit and Berber clothing, sit in an igloo or tent, and alternate putting your hand on an ice wall with standing in front of a camera displaying the temperature of your body parts on a screen. Other exhibits include smell stations where, by lifting a flap, you can inhale the horrifically realistic aromas of Fulton Fish market, New York, sweaty feet in Japanese subways and smog from Mexico City.
Schools can put together their own package of activities, including the Amazing Animals talk in a small theatre. Here the children learn about how animals adapt for survival, such as the horny toad, which is not a toad but a lizard with the protective trick of squirting "stinky" blood from its eyeballs at any predator that gets too close. The pace is lively with much audience participation but the information is scientifically orientated and stretches the audience's knowledge. A word of warning: watch out for the projectile pooing penguin.
Penny Cunningham, has chosen the Alive in Space hour-long workshop for her class, one of 27 options for KS1 and KS2. Other workshops on offer include Fantastic Fossils, Minibeasts and Me, Materials Investigation, Circuits and Conductors, DNA Discovery, and Icelab, which links in with the ice rink each winter. Similar workshops are available for KS3, KS4 and post-16, including: Sting Neutralisation Investigation; Science of Cookery; Aliens: How Do We Know They are Not Here Already?; Enzyme Investigation; Drugs and Sport; and Forensic DNA.
After a time in the interactive arcade area to let off steam, the group enters the Life Lab for the workshop. The message for the session is how to tell if something is alive. In groups, the children sort through a basket of items trying to decide if each is alive or not. Also on the table are creatures such as gerbils or Madagascan hissing cockroaches.
Some tests to apply are whether the example breathes, eats, moves, or communicates. The creatures are quickly identified as alive but there are some red herrings in the box, such as a fossil, a stick, a toy animal and a clockwork car. Next, the children consider items they might or might not need in space. "You need oxygen - you need it for breathing," says Nathan, putting a bottle labelled "oxygen" in the basket. "I think you need shoes with magnets because they will stick to metal things," adds Lily. Toys are discarded as unnecessary.
Sitting on a mat, the children simulate whizzing through space, impressively naming the planets they pass before landing on a planet outside our solar system. Here the imagination has to work overtime, testing unlikely findings - such as an elephant, a train, a spaceman and a car - for life. Tests are also done to see if they have arrived back on Earth, such as "can we breathe?" or "is it light?"
Another option for visitors is the 360-degree Dome digital interactive Lifeseeker show and the Motion Ride for children taller than 1.2 metres.
On the map
Centre for Life
Times Square, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE1 4EP
Tel: 0191 243 8210