Paranal Observatory in the Atacama Desert

Science and technology holidays: touring the universe

Think holidays are all about buckets, spades and beaches? Now, instead of a tan, you can come back from your break with greater understanding of the universe. So save on the sunblock, and look at the engineering tours on offer.

“Why don’t you call your mum?” said the woman wearing a red Science Museum staff T-shirt. She handed my young daughter a 1960s rotary dial phone from a collection on the table before her, ranging from a 1920s Candlestick stand-up phone you might find in a silent movie to the latest all-singing Samsung.

My daughter looked at the rotary phone quizzically. “But I don’t know her number.”

When you use a mobile phone, numbers are programmed in – there’s no need to remember them. I whispered the number in her ear.

My daughter put her finger in one of the holes and began to dial. It was awkward, as if she didn’t have the right muscles and movements to make the dial turn. She kept forgetting the number. She soon gave up.

This wasn’t a school trip to beef up before the kids’ exams. We were on holiday at the first Astonishing Family Science Weekend at the Butlins resort in Minehead, Somerset. In this relaxed holiday atmosphere, free from timetables and tests, we learnt more about communication technology than any of us had in a formal setting.

The UK’s most prestigious science institutions, including London’s Science Museum, were providing sessions in world-class scientific education at a seaside holiday camp. We’d built a rocket with the National Space Centre, cracked codes with Bletchley Park, dissected an eyeball with At-Bristol science centre, discovered the forces of flight by building balsa planes with the Fleet Air Arm Museum, and made pinhole photography with the Royal Institution. Our favourite was finding out about the power of viscosity by walking on a bath of custard under the watchful eye of scientists from Plymouth University, who told us how the same science was used in the construction of bulletproof vests.

Science and technology

Holidays that provide education and elevation, as well as enjoyment, used to be all about culture. Discovering Caravaggio or learning how to paint oil colours was the typical pattern. Yet companies like Butlins are increasingly offering holidays that inform and inspire us not about art but about science and technology.

Responsible Travel, which runs solar eclipse and astronomy holidays, is keen to emphasise its expertise: “Our tours coincide with celestial events – when Venus will be in conjunction with the crescent moon, again, in the early morning eastern sky; when Jupiter will be at its closest approach to Earth, you will be able to view some of the details in its cloud bands and its four largest moons, appearing on either side of the planet; the Leonids meteor shower, which is unique as it has a cyclonic peak about every 33 years, where hundreds of meteors per hour can be seen.”

Other tour companies boast about their scientific credentials. Cruise company Hurtigruten advertises with the slogan: “Unleash your inner scientist... in an interactive science lab in Antarctica.”

Fire Tech Camp runs residential camps for children aged 9 to17 to create their own games, design smartphone apps, code, build robots, do 3D printing and rapid prototyping, web development and digital music. Fire Tech’s founder Jill Hodges says: “I was looking for summer activities for my own kids that would be engaging, creative and would spark curiosity. My kids attended tech camp during a summer in the US and I couldn’t find anything like it in the UK so I started it up. I firmly believe that our kids will need skills that they are not learning at school. They need to be able to collaborate, innovate and problem-solve.”

Waterways Holidays, which offers breaks on Britain’s extensive canal system, has seen double-digit growth in demand for its holidays every year for the last four years. While floating along may be relaxing, the firm is also keen to point out the engineering education you get on the voyage. “A canal holiday provides an excellent opportunity to experience many of the engineering wonders of the UK’s historic waterways,” says Nigel Richards, managing director of Waterways. “The canals are a 3,000-mile-long man-made transport network dating back to the late 1700s and demonstrate a huge range of innovative engineering solutions by some of the greatest engineers of their era including Thomas Telford, James Brindley and Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

“Engineering features of note include the Pontcysyllte Aqueduct (recently declared a World Heritage Site), the Anderton Boat Lift, the famous staircase lock flights including Caen Hill, Tardebigge and Hatton, and the tunnels dug laboriously by hand including the famous Standedge, Blisworth and Dudley tunnels.”

It’s not only the looking that makes the scientific learning on these holidays so valuable; it’s the doing. “Travelling each canal provides an experience of water engineering, with the chance to operate locks, mechanical and electrical swing bridges and lift bridges,” says Richards. “This practical hands-on holiday gives real meaning to engineering in practice in the real world while providing a fun family holiday. Children can experience engineering in a relatable, non-theoretic way.”

Dermot King, Butlins managing director, agrees: “Our research showed there was a real desire among guests for breaks which offer a deeper, more immersive experience. They want to be part of the fun, as well as to see it on stage. Our Astonishing Family Science weekends offer just that. Plus, for children it’s a chance to do and try things they might not get the chance to otherwise, while for their parents, it enables them to stay totally up to date with the sort of things their children are learning at school. As a family, parents and children can learn, experience and enjoy together.”

This type of informal learning on these holidays is increasing in recognition. The Wellcome Trust recently commissioned a report into the state of informal learning outside the classroom in the UK. It notes: “Even when in full-time education, young people spend only 18 per cent of their waking hours in school. There is a lot of time available for influencing their learning outside the formal system, and we are persuaded that informal science can engage and interest people in ways that formal settings cannot.

“While school matters in helping students cover the required breadth of content and develop formalised and general principles, experiences outside the classroom are essential to give meaning, relevance and context to the ideas that schools offer. As important, they often provide emotional contact, where it is possible to have a hands-on experience, be challenged or provoked, or simply enjoy the moment.”

Learning informally can have a profound effect on adults too. The Wellcome report notes that while schooling and childhood experiences contribute 17 per cent of the variance in adults’ levels of scientific knowledge, their adult informal learning experiences contribute 39 per cent. Once science and technology becomes associated with going on holiday, they become entertainment instead of education. Wellcome calls informal learning “learning by stealth”, or “learning without being actively aware”.

The purpose of science holidays isn’t to supplement school – they are central to our scientific understanding. Kenny Webster, head of learning operations at the Science Museum, London, says: “The issue is not so much that we learn more or less when we are in a new environment, it is that we learn in a different way. On family trips and holidays, children are often with their parents and siblings, sharing experiences and learning with and from each other. If we think about our relationship with science – our ‘science capital’ – a major part of this is parental influence, learning out of school, meeting new people who use science in their daily lives and talking about science with others.

“These are all things that can happen much more away from the classroom and indeed the home. It is not that this is more important than formal education; it is just another aspect of the science learning landscape. The two approaches complement each other and lead to a more substantial learning experience than either on its own.”

Outside of the classroom

Aware of this increasing interest in learning on holiday, companies are keen to offer more serious scientific content. Hurtigruten’s ship the MS Midnatsol, part of its cruising fleet, has an on-board interactive science lab, promising that “those who have always fancied themselves as a polar scientist can participate in field experiments such as examining a three-million-year-old piece of ice through a microscope, or studying meteors found on shore”.

Even theme parks are repackaging as places of scientific learning. Busch Gardens in Florida, home to some of the world’s top rollercoasters, wants to attract ‘engineering buffs’ who will admire the engineering feats of their designers. It is proud to boast the world’s first face-down drop tower ride called Falcon’s Fury, which opened in September 2015. Falcon’s Fury stands at 335ft (102m) and plunges riders 60mph straight down. Busch points out that the ride has been compared to skydiving by its designers, who have used special sequencing technology so passengers can’t anticipate when they drop each time.

Tierra Hotels markets its break in the Atacama Desert, northern Chile, using language more often found in an astronomy textbook: “We take customers to see sites like the Paranal Observatory, home of the Very Large Telescope (VLT) array, which is the world’s most advanced optical observatory, consisting of four 8.2m fixed telescopes and four 1.8m movable scopes, which can act together to form a giant interferometer of fantastic resolution – it’s been described as the equivalent to being able to distinguish between two different car headlights if the car was parked on the Moon.

“You can also visit the La Silla observatory, home to HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher), which is the world’s foremost extrasolar planet detector; or the amazing ALMA (Atacama Large Millimetre/submillimetre Array), which searches for light from the coldest objects in the universe from the dizzying 5,100m above sea level of the Chajnator plateau. These observatories are inspiring places to visit.”

The wonder of such science breaks is that constraints of a regular classroom do not apply. “Schools don’t cover these subjects in the kind of depth that we do,” says Hodges of Fire Tech Camp. “We have the flexibility to use whatever tools we can find to teach, like Minecraft and Robots. Our campers are motivated and self-selected, and we work in small groups so we can get a lot of momentum. We have the flexibility to let the kids dive deep in the areas of most interest to them.” Hodges also points out that, in an exam- and test-free environment, children feel freer to experiment and make mistakes.

I may have thought I was going on a trip to Butlins with my family, but holiday providers now have bigger ambitions. “It might be a vacation, but it’s serious,” says Hodges. “We want kids to walk away feeling like they can be the next Jony Ive or Mark Zuckerberg.”

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