Curiouser and curiouser…

May 6th, 2011

The inner ear of a whale, a costume from the 1980s’ hit film Flash Gordon and a Voodoo Lily which attracts pollinating insects by giving off the smell of rotting meat…

Dr Matthew McFall – Agent of Wonder at the Nottingham University Samworth Academy (NUSA) – is on a mission to fire the imagination of young learners.

And with his Wonder Room – a first for a UK school – Dr McFall throws open a modern-day cabinet of curiosities for children to explore.

Every shelf is laden with assorted unidentified ephemera – a mere glimpse of the wonders of the world – and uses the natural inquisitiveness of children to inspire a thirst for knowledge.

From the retro to the mysterious and the downright weird, the room has a section on puzzles and secret codes, alien-looking plant pods and a rib bone of a woolly mammoth.

The Wonder Room stems from Dr McFall’s research at the University’s Learning Sciences Research Institute (LSRI) for his doctorate examining whether wonder can be used in the classroom as a tool for learning. It also taps in to Dr McFall’s other lifelong passion, stage magic. A specialist in illusion design, his interest dates back to when he received his first magic set from his parents at the age of four.

Dr McFall said: “Magic is brilliant for building confidence and dexterity and some forms of magic such as illusions and effects may also have a mathematical or scientific element. Magic also teaches us that it’s OK if we don’t know everything, can’t see how something is done, but also fascinates us enough that we want to find out.

“Magic has stayed with me throughout my life and I want to use that same sense of wonder to empower the children rather than have them feel they are stupid because they don’t yet understand everything they encounter in life. There’s an element of thinking involved but I want the journey they take by exploring the objects in this room to affect their head, heart and hands.”

Dr McFall’s passion seems to border on the obsessive – he admits that most of the exhibits in the room have come from his own home. However, donations have started trickling in from colleagues and curious visitors.

The Wonder Room is also playing an increasingly supportive role in lessons — Dr McFall has begun supplying colleagues with a themed pack of objects to enhance teaching in a particular area.

NUSA’s principal Dave Harris believes that this is crucial in reaching pupils who may not always engage with traditional classroom methods, particularly those pupils with behavioural problems or special educational needs.

He said: “I have seen so many of our pupils talk so enthusiastically about The Wonder Room: they are interested, they ask questions and that can only be beneficial. The objects from The Wonder Room gives them a context that they don’t get elsewhere. For some kids certain topics are mystifying but by looking at and holding an artefact it allows them to more easily relate to that topic — it’s another piece of the puzzle.”

Pupils can visit The Wonder Room during break times, lunchtime or as a reward for achievement. Many have asked to bring family or friends in, while others have been inspired to take up a hobby or start collecting.

Jordan Elsgood, 13, said: “I come in here quite regularly and I have found I am really good at metal key puzzles. They’re a real brain strain but when I actually do it I feel like I’ve really achieved something.”

Aiden Whitehead, 11, agreed: “This room is cool — strange but cool. It feels quite calm. I really like all the different kinds of puzzles here too and I can spend ages working on trying to do them.”

Visitors can leave feedback on pieces of card. Every single one is a ringing endorsement. But one enthusiastically scrawled comment sums it up perfectly. It simply says: “I want to live here!”

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[…] of those holding open the door to science using wonder as a gateway is Matthew McFall, a magician and educator. He asks questions like this: “What would happen in a school if you had […]

[…] man behind Nottingham University Samworth Academy’s Wonder Room is Dr Matthew McFall, brought in by the then new head, Dave Harris, as an Agent of Wonder with the […]

July 16th, 2013 at 8:07 pm


This soeunds amazing – can children from Nottinghamshire schools come and visit? I would love to bring my year 5 children

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