The Czech Republic’s first and only science centre has recently celebrated its first birthday. Techmania, based in the western industrial city of Plzeň, has already demonstrated its pulling power based on the formula of learning while having fun. And it has much bigger ambitions.
At one of the midday sessions at Techmania, one of the staff demonstrate to a captivated group of children and their parents the literally hair raising powers of electricity and how it can be controlled.
The centre is housed in one of the engineering workshops of the sprawling Škoda Plzeň works with large cranes on tracks still visible up in the roof. And one of the three permanent exhibitions recollects the history of the family firm that was the biggest munitions supplier to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, built rudders for trans-Atlantic liners, and trams and buses for the world.
But history is not the real draw of Techmania. It has been conceived with getting across a basic message to children that science is fun. Michaela Petrlíková is programme manager at the science centre.
“The original idea is to learn and have fun at the same time; to explore and discover things, how some physical phenomena work and to try and learn here in an amusing way. You see and touch the exhibits and you can try how these physical phenomena work.”
In fact, two of the founders of the science centre, Škoda Holding and the West Bohemian University in Plzeň, came up with the idea precisely because they saw a worrying fall off in interest in science and technology courses, research, and science-based jobs. That was in 2005. Just over three years later in November 2008 the centre was opened with just over a year of operations now under its belt. Michaela Petrlíková again.
“The first year we introduced ourselves to our visitors because we were quite new in the Czech Republic. We are an interactive museum so this is very new for our visitors and the people. We have reached the total of 70,000 people per year coming to Techmania.”
More than a third of those first year visitors have been groups from primary and secondary schools with visitors also coming from abroad.
“We have people from the whole of the Czech Republic. We have school groups coming here from Brno and Moravia. We also have had foreign groups here from Germany, some from Denmark and England. This place is quite good for foreign visitors because there is a manual here beside every exhibit in German and English. They can read information about the exhibit, how it works and what to learn there.”
The mainstays of the exhibition, besides the historical Škoda exhibition, are the so-called edutorium. This is really a collection of around 60 models which visitors can operate to demonstrate a scientific process such as how different types of lenses work, the properties of light and how it can be distorted by prisms, magnetism, electricity and the science behind an ordinary fridge.
To help schoolchildren and older visitors do more than just press the buttons to get the machines working and grasp some of the scientific principles at stake there are a handful of what are described as edutrainers. These are basically guides who can explain science at many levels. Some are employed full-time with students called in as reinforcements. David Lobotka is one of the full-time edutrainers who here, rather appropriately, tried to explain some of the fundamentals about sound and radio waves.
“This exhibit is proof that sound moves in waves. Here there is the source of the sound. The sound waves move through the tube of water. They reflect and meet the sound still coming into the tube which creates standing waves. I turn it up and change the frequency and at one point you can see the splash. Here is the antinode of the standing waves, if I go on you can hear when I change frequency it means a higher tone and a higher tone means higher frequency since we hear tones according to frequency.”
Another part of the centre includes various brain teasers and games that demonstrate the scientific rules that, for instance, allow you to spin plates or build your architectural fantasies.
The busiest part of the centre when I was there was the latest touring exhibition “Top Secret”: an exploration of the world of espionage and the technology used in carry out security checks at airports, coding material and deciphering codes, fingerprints and tyre tracks. Visitors can, for example, be sent on a special mission which involves fulfilling 21 tasks with lots of other opportunities for interaction.
“This is very successful because everybody can find something they are interested in. You can find there some techniques of secret spying, camouflage and eavesdropping. You can learn some of the techniques that James Bond used”
The exhibition was previously running at sister science centres in Belgium and Denmark and will run in Plzeň until the end of the year. It follows on from an exhibition called “Copyright Nature” which explained how many modern innovations such as sonar and Velcro have actually been inspired by careful observation of nature.
In spite of what it has already achieved, Techmania is still a work in progress. In fact, only about a third of the large main industrial building is being used for the current exhibitions with another neighbouring industrial building donated to the project still derelict.
“We would like to reconstruct the rest of this building. Now it is just the first third of the whole reconstruction of this building and it will have an extra 30,000 square metres. And there will also be another building where there will be a planetarium. We would like to have a planetarium here as well and reconstruct the rest of the building. These are our huge plans for the future”
The remainder of the current building would be used for more exhibition space and would also host labs where school groups or students could carry out experiments. The hope is that this second half of the project could be completed by 2014. But with budding young alchemists not so far finding the secret of how to produce gold, regional and European funds will have to be forthcoming if that ambition is to be realised.
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