Today the older two, my mum and I went to the Science & Engineering day at the university:
Harry had originally sounded less than thrilled at the prospect of spending his Saturday in this way, and it’s kind of hard to sell the concept to a 5 year old. But from the moment that we got there and he clocked that there were coloured footprint trails to follow, he went into excited puppy mode. Charlotte was a done deal from the outset, the possibility of activities on a non-school day a sheer no-brainer for her.
Well the first thing to say is that my expectations weren’t that high, so I probably didn’t leave enough time. We ambled in at about 11.30 and were there until kicking out time at 4.30, and had only seen a fraction of what was going on.
We started off with the Acoustic Chambers tours, which were set away from the main stage of events, but conveniently near the staff carpark (and thus critically near the first set of footprints we came across!). The first room we were taken into was amazing – an anechoic chamber- like something out of Star Wars, and immediately got us in the mood for discovery.
The floors, walls and ceilings were covered in hundreds of pillow-like structures, so it felt like being inside an enormous beehive, and it was explained to us that when the door was shut and you were on your own you experienced the strange sensation of absolutely no background noise. Then you could actually hear your own heartbeat, even your own blood flow, and this was a very disorientating experience for most people. Charlotte and I both felt like we had fuzzy heads just from being in there with the door wide open for five minutes, so we could easily imagine this happening pretty quickly. My mum suggested it could make a good torture chamber. Next we were taken to the echo chamber, which was obviously just brilliant for small people to make lots of noise in, and something Katie would have enjoyed no end.
After grabbing a bit of lunch, we made our way across the courtyard, stopping at the Giant Inflatable Colon (probably a bit of a mistake, it being all about cancer, and the children’s granddad having died from colon cancer, but one of those things you definitely can’t predict). In the Students’ Union was the main activity zone, where we could easily have spent all day. Here we made our own slime (which reminds me it is still sitting – at least I hope it is – in my coat pocket), Harry watched the custard monster agog for at least 10 minutes, explored human skeletons, looked at butterfly wings down a microscope, did weird and wonderful things with dry ice (always a winner), tested our strength, and played sensory games. This included a rather cool experience of being spun around in a chair with an eye-protector which people on the outside could see into but which blacked out everything for the participant. So observers could then watch the participant’s eyes go into a kind of spasm afterwards to process their non-seen dizzy sensation. Every one of these was a winner with my two.
Then we trotted up the campus to see a chemistry talk – I was initially a little sceptical that Harry would cope with 45 minutes of sitting down and listening, but needn’t have worried as it was brilliantly interactive with lots of impressive coloured fires, bubbly reactions and wonderfully dramatic explosions. Charlotte and Harry even amazed me by putting their hands up completely unselfconsciously in a lecture-hall of about 200 people, but there was a wonderful infectious enthusiasm going around the room, which can’t be a bad thing to take away from the day.
By this point I was starting to feel a little guilty about leaving Charlie with Katie all day, but obviously not guilty enough not to squeeze in another last visit. So we dashed over to engineering, where Harry took part in a traffic light-simulated sceletrix, built a bridge out of paper to see how many Mars bars it could support (34, not quite touching the day’s record of 200-odd, but not bad for a first attempt), and played with a debris-collecting space robot (very Wall-E).
A really excellent day out and amazingly didn’t cost us a penny. Perhaps the best thing about it was that it was more or less completely staffed by postgraduates, who were obviously at their career peak of enthusiasm for teaching, and who were incredibly engaged with the kids, getting down to their level and making sure they understood what the games were about, and never once hurrying them on. So they really were able to indulge their interest in particular features for as long as their liked. On days like that, it is completely impossible to hold onto your cynicism, the rapt expression on the kids’ faces was priceless. I mean while they've enjoyed Intech and the National Science Museum, the one-on-one explaining and enthusiasm of a day like this definitely adds another level. I only wish we’d got there an hour earlier and could have squeezed in a bit more. There was a lot more shows going on, some of which you had to book for, including a star show, laser show, and vegetable orchestra! We will definitely be back next year, having studied the itinerary and fully prepped to make the most of every second.