The West Bridgford School near Nottingham was recently awarded a £50,000 grant from the Wolfson Foundation for a ten-metre-diameter geodesic dome glasshouse to help teach plant biology. The specialist technology academy chose Hampshire-based dome designer and manufacturer Solardome Industries for the project, which included installing motorised vents to give the school complete control over the its new micro-climate. The academy’s head of science is Dr Alastair Stutt. He explained more about the thinking behind the dome, as well as the new opportunities it gives teachers and learners.
Why did you choose a geodesic glass dome?
I’d heard about schools that had similar things elsewhere, not necessarily Solardome outdoor classrooms, but certainly glasshouse or atrium-type areas where they could teach plant biology. So from there I did a Google search and found Solardome Industries. I then spoke to the head and he was very taken with the structure. We settled very quickly on the dome concept because it was exactly the kind of thing we wanted and it fitted the space so well. It was a pretty swift decision, really.
What was your vision for education?
For me the dome is about tying together plant biology across the whole school, from year seven right through to year thirteen. Now whenever there is plant biology provision we can use the dome. We have 120-130 students doing A-level biology, so it’s very advantageous to have this facility.
How does the dome work in practice?
We’ve tried to keep the space as flexible as possible. For example, we have movable lab benching along with perimeter benching, so we can comfortably accommodate a whole class. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a demonstration about desert plants, saprophytic plants or perhaps a growth and photosynthesis experiment, we can do it very easily. It is also used as an art gallery and for music lessons because of its unique acoustics. In fact, whenever there’s an appropriate use for the dome, then staff can book it and a technician will make it ready.
What are you using it for right now?
We have a range of different plants that we display in the dome: cacti and aloe, for example. We also have palm trees that are good for transpiration experiments. In terms of hydroponics we use the dome to demonstrate and experiment with agricultural methods. For instance, we’ve had a lot of success at growing basil, tomatoes and chillies, from which we can yield a good crop in a small space.
Where did you position the dome and why?
The dome’s location in the courtyard was just a bit of rough ground until we paved it. The main reason for positioning it right in the centre of the school was that it is a completely secure location where we can leave our computers and other equipment. Also, there was space for some external beds, which meant we could compare growth outside and inside very easily.
What has been the reaction to the dome?
As a classroom it’s a very different environment and students enjoy that experience. They are always very struck by it when they walk in for the first time and they have responded extremely positively. We’ve also held open evenings when visitors have been very impressed by the structure. It’s not the sort of thing you expect to see in a school. We had a professor of biology from Nottingham University visit us and he was very taken with it. I wasn’t really surprised by that because it’s exactly the kind of facility you might expect to find at a university.