Research Informed Science Enrichment Programs at the Gravity Discovery Centre

Article excerpt

Excursions to museums and science centres generally are great fun for students and teachers. The potential educational benefits beyond enjoyment, however, are rarely realised or analysed for their efficacy. The purpose of this paper is to describe four educational enrichment programs delivered at the Gravity Discovery Centre (GDC), near Gingin, Western Australia, that are informed by research in different ways. These programs are designed to maximise the educational outcomes for students, assess what they have learnt, and, at the same time, maintain the excitement and enthusiasm generated by a visit to a world class science centre.

The Gravity Discovery Centre (GDC) is an independent non-profit facility supported by industry and the Western Australian Government. It provides education resources to complement the Australian International Gravitational Observatory (AIGO) Research Centre at Gingin, a rural location 80km north of the Perth CBD. The GDC was set up through a major fundraising process that led to a total investment of more than $10 million.

The GDC was designed to be a learning centre that focuses on modern physics, astronomy and biodiversity. It was funded mainly through private sector donations. In parallel with the development of the buildings and exhibitions, the GDC worked with a group of talented and dedicated school teachers to develop education programs linked to exhibits. Stage 1 of the GDC was opened in 2003 and Stage II in 2008. It is now a large scale facility containing more than 2000 square metres of hands-on activities, exhibits, displays and educational resources. It is located beside the AIGO Research Centre where up to twenty research personnel conduct large scale experiments with high power lasers, all related to the detection of gravitational waves, a new spectrum of radiation expected to allow humanity to listen to the gravitational 'sounds' of black holes and the Big Bang.

The facilities of the GDC include a large public astronomy centre (Gingin Observatory), the new state of the art robotic Zadko Telescope owned by the University of Western Australia, a 20m pendulum tower, a 1 km scale model of the Solar System, the Leaning Tower of Gingin, (see Figure 1: A 45m steel tower for students to do free fall experiments) and research laboratories available for student visits.

The main GDC buildings include four large scale galleries:

(a) The Discovery Gallery allows students to explore gravity and other fundamental forces of the universe, the links between space and time, and the links between time and gravity.

(b) The Innovation Gallery includes examples of local innovations. Displays are organised in cooperation with local high technology businesses.

[FIGURE 1 OMITTED]

(c) The Cosmology Gallery has a main exhibit on the origin of the universe including a 60m timeline of the universe from the Big Bang to life on Earth. Other exhibits are of meteorites, minerals and fossils and also cultural cosmology with large scale artworks depicting creation stories from indigenous cultures and world religions.

(d) The Biodiversity Gallery focuses on the unique and extraordinary diversity and specialisations of plants and invertebrates found on the 50km2 pristine bushland surrounding the GDC.

The GDC currently has 20,000 visitors per annum, half of whom are in school groups from Western Australia and South East Asia, that undertake curriculum related enrichment programs.

The GDC is unique and innovative. It combines art with science, original research with learning modules linked to large scale facilities such as the Leaning Tower and the Pendulum Tower, and cosmology linked to astronomy, geology, palaeontology and traditional cultural beliefs. The founders of the GDC won the Australian Prime Minister's Eureka Prize for Promoting Science in 2008. It was highlighted in the prestigious journal Nature, July 10, 2008. …