Page last updated at 14:55 GMT, Wednesday, 21 November 2007

Brown launches science gallery

By Sean Coughlan
Education reporter, BBC News

Rainbow bubble in the revamped Launchpad
Launchpad is a highly interactive area

This isn't just hands-on science, this is "minds-on" science, promises the Science Museum, which this weekend will see the opening of its 4m expanded and modernised interactive gallery for young people.

Launchpad, the noisily irresistible part of the museum where children can make things crash, light up and change shape, has been completely re-designed, with 50 new exhibits in a floor space that is a third bigger than before.

Prime Minister Gordon Brown, who has always held a torch for science, made an appearance at a preview, announcing an extra 13m for the National Museum of Science and Industry.

Mr Brown made a connection between the inspirational value of the children's gallery and the serious business of rearing scientists as wealth-creators in a globalised economy.

"The opportunities here are not just a noble idea - the pursuit of wisdom, the fulfilment of human potential - but an economic imperative. I strongly believe that in the globalised economy, no country can take its prosperity for granted," said Mr Brown.

He also announced his ambition that there should be a science club in every school within the next five years.

Indoor rocketry

As an example of how to combine learning with playing, the Launchpad gallery is a big-budget collection of bubbles, bangs and buttons to press.

Among the crowd-pullers is an exhibit which lets children propel a plastic bottle 30 metres inside a tube running across the ceiling of the gallery. This indoor rocketry is a lesson about water, air and pressure.

Launchpad exhibit
1m children visited the old Launchpad area last year

There's also an eye-catching thermal imaging display, which looks cool, involves playing with ice and wearing masks. It's entertaining, but it's also a lesson about temperature and energy transfer.

Before anyone can say "dumbing down", there's a long tradition of such interactive children's galleries at the Science Museum, with the first opening in 1931. Among the first attractions was an artificial rainbow.

The gallery acquired the Launchpad label in 1986 - and anyone who has brought children here will have experienced its mixture of amusement arcade and science lesson.

Exercise bikes

The latest incarnation of this free-entry gallery is much brighter and bigger and will help with the overcrowding of the previous space. Many of the old exhibits are being donated to an education project in South Africa.

But there are some survivors. Children can still build an arch and surprise themselves that it doesn't collapse when they sit on it.

Children looking at thermal images of themselves
Launchpad opens on 24 November

Launchpad also continues to be a physical kind of gallery. Exercise bikes are hooked up to generate electricity and children can see that if they pedal fast enough they can make a radio play, then bring a video screen to life.

There's a clever device for examining momentum and movement, which simulates the speed gathered by spinning ice skaters. And there's an elegance to watching water freeze and to see dry ice rolling across water.

The exhibits are demonstrating ideas about light, forces, motion, waves and magnetism, but it's experienced through pushing, pulling and playing. It's intended to "lift the concepts off the textbook page", says the gallery's head of content, Anthony Richards.

At present the brand-new gallery is looking polished and calm, ready for the curtain to raise.

But with a million children cramming into the old gallery each year, you can almost hear the clamouring of young visitors ready to give Launchpad some serious road-testing in the months ahead.

Launchpad, Science Museum, South Kensington, London, opens 24 November.

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