Dedicated followers of fission

National Children’s Science Centre is aimed at stimulating children’s natural curiosity and encouraging them to explore and discover

Young scientists engage in participative science at the launch of this year’s Galway Science and Technology Festival. Photo: Andrew Downes

Young scientists engage in participative science at the launch of this year’s Galway Science and Technology Festival. Photo: Andrew Downes

 

Across the world science centres provide an important and successful means of communicating science to the public. We have been slow in getting off the ground in this regard in Ireland, though some notable initiatives have been taken. But today I bring very glad tidings – firm commitments are in place to build the National Children’s Science Centre (NCSC), to open in 2020. This new interactive NCSC will fill a vital gap in the Irish science, technology, engineering and mathematics (Stem) education infrastructure.

The NCSC will also be known as Exploration Station to reflect its central concept as a hands-on interactive centre, aimed at stimulating children’s natural curiosity and encouraging them to explore and discover. The interactive exhibits will reinforce core scientific concepts. The NCSC will mainly focus on children in the four to 15 year age range, though people of all ages will enjoy and learn from the exhibits and presentations. The centre will also provide an important education resource for parents and teachers and will introduce children to career opportunities in Stem.

Annual attendances of 150,000 plus people are projected for NCSC but this figure may be conservative. Science centres are very popular and the new facility will be a major tourist attraction – the most popular tourist attraction in Boston is the Boston Science Museum.

The NCSC will be developed in the old North Wing of the National Concert Hall on Dublin’s Earlsfort Terrace. Planning permission to commence building was granted in September 2016 to the Office of Public Works (OPW). All costs relating to the refurbishment of the North Wing will be covered by the State.

The new NCSC wll house more than 200 interactive exhibits centred on a 15 metre dome planetarium fitted with 200 seats and high-spec imaging and sound system. It is estimated that the exhibits will cost about €15 million. The centre will also have a show theatre and laboratories where students can do experiments. Trained “explorers” will provide interactive demonstrations and theatre presentations. A teacher resource centre will support preschool, primary and transition year teachers. Transition year placements will be offered.

Ireland has a fine scientific heritage of which many people are unaware and the NCSC will also highlight this heritage. A small selection of notable Irish-born scientists includes Robert Boyle (1627-1691) ) – Father of Chemistry; John Tyndall (1820-1893) – explained why sky is blue; Lord Kelvin (1824-1907) – second law of thermodynamics; Ernest Walton (1903-1995) – Nobel prizewinner (1951) for splitting the atom; John Bell (1928-1990) – famous quantum physicist.

The activities of NCSC are overseen by a board of directors chaired by Dr Danny O’Hare, founding president of Dublin City University. This board will run the NCSC, fundraise the €15 million to provide the exhibits and €0.5 million per year towards the annual running costs and run the various commercial activities of NCSC, eg cafe, shop, etc. About 40 per cent of annual running costs will come from the Government.

The descriptive material on the NCSC notes it will be “dedicated to discovery learning”. Discovery learning is a minimally guided form of instruction which is enquiry-based in problem-solving situations where the learner draws on his/her experience and knowledge to discover new knowledge and truths. Discovery learning is intuitively appealing but I am convinced by the work of psychologist Paul Kirschner, published in the journal Educational Psychologist in 2006, that it is an ineffective way to teach children compared to straightforward presentations of established bodies of knowledge. However, I understand the interactive exhibits will be supplemented and complemented by straightforward expositions of the relevant scientific facts and I welcome this commitment to tried and tested teaching method.

Hands-on interactive exhibits must be very robust or they will frequently breakdown. I was disappointed recently to find that more than a few of the interactive exhibits weren’t working in the formidable Cité des Sciences et de l’Industrie in Paris. I am delighted with news that the new NCSC is firmly on track to open in 2020. The Government, OPW and the NCSC board deserve our congratulation for germinating and nurturing this project to its current state of near completion.

William Reville is an emeritus professor of Biochemistry at UCC

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