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Inspiring aspirations

Science Museum Swindon - A former air base near Swindon is seeking lottery cash to transform itself into a hothouse for stimulating aspiring young engineers. John McKenna reports.

How to attract more young people into science and engineering has taxed the minds of government, industry and academia for some time. At last, at an old airfield just outside Swindon, in Wroughton, Wiltshire, there is a team of people that says it has the answer.

Working on a project called Inspired for the Science Museum Swindon, the team aims to create a new experience of engineering for schoolchildren.

'If you're not getting children interested in the sciences at the 12 to 16 year old stage, they're not going to choose those disciplines at GCSE level, ' says Inspired head of development Sally Petifer.

While the Science Museum in London is hugely popular, it can only display 8% of its exhibits at any given time and most visitors will only spend a day exploring it.

Petifer's team wants to inspire children at the crucial stage ahead of GCSEs by allowing them to spend several days exploring scientific artefacts, allowing them time to understand and get excited by the principles that make things work.

Inspired is founded on the principle that pupils will retain more of what they are taught through active learning than through passive lecturing.

'In London we do teach through practical demonstrations a bit, ' says Inspired development officer Rod Hebdem.

'But here we can do it on a much bigger scale, like firing a rocket down a runway.' To turn this exciting prospect into reality, the Inspired initiative needs £64M. Apart from a couple of refurbished buildings which are now the offices for the museum staff, the 221ha Wroughton air base is little changed from the days when it was used as a maintenance site during the Second World War.

The 10 hangars dotted around the site each measure a massive 4,000m 2 and house 200,000 of the Science Museum's largest exhibits. In one, a Blue Steel missile, precursor to Polaris, sits metres away from a tunnel boring machine used in the abortive attempt to dig the Channel Tunnel in the 1920s.

Other pieces of engineering history which can be stumbled on during a stroll through one hangar include a reinforced concrete section of Woolston Quay, Southampton.

Built in 1899, it was the first example of reinforced concrete in England to use the Hennebique technique. Opposite it sits a rather curious invention from Marc Isambard Brunel - a circular hosiery knitting machine.

All of this is locked away, as only one hangar is open to the public. But if Inspired could find the money it needs, another hangar could be opened up and a main museum building constructed.

Existing plans would make this the second largest free standing structure for a museum in the world. Wroughton's main building would be 40,000m 2 in its total surface area.

The immense size of the structure will allow aircraft to be hung spectacularly and will give the exhibits the space and high quality environment that they need. Petifer says visitors staying over night will even be allowed to sleep among the exhibits, emulating the extremely popular sleep-over events held once a month at the Science Museum in London.

But whereas the London sleep-overs are for eight to 11 year-olds, Inspired will be aiming for the 12 to 16 year old bracket and so will need to inject the experience with a degree of excitement that will appeal to older children.

'For example, we could have a night time treasure hunt using night-vision goggles. The advantage of Inspired will be that there will be fewer people visiting than London, but they will be spending more time here, so the visits will have a greater impact, ' Petifer says.

The Inspired museum building itself will be a concrete structure with a cantilevered steel roof covered with chalk downland grass to fit in with its rural surroundings. It will be environmentally friendly, with a 300m wide solarthermal panel wall in front of one side of the building. The panels trap sunlight, heating up attached water pipes and carrying hot water into the building. The wall behind the panels will be painted black to maximise the heat absorption. This one wall will provide 20% of the museum's heating.

But to do all this, Inspired must rst go head to head with ve other projects to win £50M in a live televised vote later this year (see box). The Living Landmarks: People's Millions competition will be shown on prime-time ITV this November.

Bidders have already been given £500,000 each to develop their submissions, which must be handed into the National Lottery's charitable arm, the Big Lottery Fund, by 31 May. Should Inspired win, it will still need private investment. Backers already on board include Honda, Intel, RWE nPower and Viridor Waste Management.

For more information go to www. voteinspired. org. uk

Living Landmarks challenge

Inspired will compete with five other projects for £50M this November. Here are the rival contenders:

Sherwood: The Living Legend Would transform historic Sherwood forest as a tourist attraction by building a visitor centre, tree top walkways and educational facilities.

Connect2 Sustainable transport charity Sustrans will use the money to help fund 50 or more local foot and cycle bridge schemes across the UK.

Eden project climate change biome Eden plans to build a new attraction to teach people about the perils of climate change.

Waterlinks A collection of 51 Somerset based projects located that will open up rivers and canals to people. It will include visitor centres, bird hides, wetland reserves, new canal locks, historic canal renovations, and enhancements to a river sluice to raise the water level of the River Parrett.

Black Country as an Urban Park Would create four visionary flagship developments at Dudley, Sandwell, Walsall and Wolverhampton.

In Dudley, the project focuses on the regeneration of the Wren's Nest and Seven Sisters Mine.

Wolverhampton would benefit from the creation of a walkway alongside the canal network and Walsall and Sandwell would be linked by a new footpath.

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