Sparking an interest in technology and science

Photo: David Vondruska,

There's no question that raising interest in science and technology among students, even very young ones, is an important task for any school system. The question is how - textbooks and diagrams on the blackboard often do little to ignite students' imagination. That's one reason why several organisations - including the Czech Brain Project - put their heads together to take science out of the classroom and into the streets, where kids could enjoy hands-on technology. For two days trains, model airplanes, and yes - robots - took over the city to children's delight.

Various sites were open on Saturday and I visited one: a tent on Prague's Namesti Miru Square. Films about science played and everyone from grade-schoolers to university kids investigated various stands offering activity corners. In one, children were taught how to make the simplest of radios - using a bit of wire and yes, empty Cola bottles.

Their supervisor explained the kids had been listening all day - though not to Radio Prague which they couldn't pick up on medium wave.

Certainly, making your own radio is exciting - and simple - but what about a two-foot Meccano-bot on monster treads? Now's that a science project!

"When I press this switch his right leg goes forward, the treads roll," one little boy says. He was too young to design it, but clearly wished he had. Asked why he liked robots he replied:

"I like them because they are like people, just out of metal and plastic."

French Nobel-prize physicist Claude Cohen-Tannoudji would be pleased. At a Prague conference on the future of science earlier in the week he said that getting kids interested early was the key.

"It's important to renovate the way of teaching science at primary school, even at the primary school level, to show to the kids that we are very interested at looking at phenomena and playing with objects. To give them the feeling that they can observe things, that they can use their reasoning, that they can make new experiments. They should be excited by what they see to make them continue."

Prague's "City of Science and Technology" event attracted not just the very young: one of Namesti Miru's main events was a display of robots from a prestigious amateur competition known as "Eurobot", in which teams of students from European high schools and universities design and programme their own robots to solve various problems. David Obdrzalek, a doctor of science at Prague's Charles University, explains:

"The task of this year's contest was to lay down the skittles, and right now that robot is just trying to find the skittles of the proper colours. While it might look like a tank that's just because it was built by people who were fond of stuff like that. It is quite robust."

I asked David Obdrzalek whether he thought robots were a major attraction:

"Of course, if you look around you can see that there are many kids, as well as young men and women, and they are quite happy to see it. We want to show them that science can be fun. Some people are afraid of science, and think that they can't do it, that it's all 'big science'. But, in fact you can buy a toy in a shop, a radio-controlled car, and you don't have to build any mechanics but can just add a few parts for 100 crowns (5 dollars) and it works. You can really build your own little robot. That too is science!"

Throughout other parts of Prague visitors saw a multitude of events at the weekend: the famous speed-record setting Pendolino train, motorbikes, and chemistry projects. On a warm spring day it was probably enough to whet anyone's appetite for science; the only question is whether two days were enough.