I recently had the chance to accompany Alison Rivett and her team of demonstrators to one of the Primary Outreach Days offered by Bristol ChemLabs. The aim of these days is to “catch them young” and young they were!

A wide-eyed bunch of 4-11 year olds from St. George’s Primary School on Brandon Hill in Bristol walked through the hall we had set up with a demo lecture as they entered the school. Most were slightly confused at what was happening, some had a clue about what was going on and others were a little of both! My favourite comments made by children as they passed were “Hmm smells like magnesium!” and “Wow! Will we get to use sodium chloride today?!” This was all the funnier given that neither chemical was in the room (although given that the hall doubled as a canteen, I can’t promise there wasn’t a stash of “sodium chloride distribution devices” nearby!)

When I tell people afterwards that an entire primary school sat for one hour listening to a speaker, they are often taken aback. How could somebody possibly hold the attention of a group of young children for that long? Well I can confirm that the length of the talk was just right. All the children were engaged throughout as they witnessed things freeze and bubble and change colour and smoke and bang. When Alison asked them what chemists do and what happens in a university, many of the answers were a little puzzling and although I have to admit the demo lecture may have done little to change the mind of the pupil who responded “they blow things up!” the children were full of questions for the team of scientists all day and had a much better idea about the type of work they actually did.

While the rest of the school went off to resume normal lessons, the children from year 5 and 6 remained with us for a series of workshop sessions where they got the chance to play with slime and polymorph amongst other things. They were encouraged to work on their observation, measurement and prediction skills as well as working together as a team. As I walked around I heard children saying “this is the best thing I’ve ever done” and one child asking another “what do you want to be when you grow up?” when the response was heard to be “a scientist” the first replied “yeah me too!” The children were so engaged that after 90 minutes of being stood up, few had even realised how tired they were.

After lunch, we delivered a session on smells. The teachers were loving the experience as much as the children and all commented on how much they had learnt and how many ideas they had for future projects to develop. I think the modelling experience in the afternoon still needs some development though given the number of confused pupils I saw holding their molymods up to their noses trying to work out why “…it doesn’t smell of a cat’s bum?” (a comment you might not fully understand unless you’ve done one of Bristol’s Fragrance Workshops)

When we left, the school was buzzing and I was reminded of the day in my primary school that the local Living History group fired a canon on the school field. This was an experience these pupils would not forget.

I’m grateful to Alison and her team for allowing me to accompany them. Primary Outreach is something we at Bath are looking to develop and we shall certainly be “borrowing” many of the ideas from the model used by Bristol in the next year.