Two Continents, One Goal
Public Awareness of Science in Africa and Australia
The South African Government has recently identified raising science awareness amongst their population as a high priority area for future development. To address this, they are in the process of building a number of new science centres across the country. But although South Africa has several universities offering excellent training in various scientific disciplines, at the moment there are no courses that specifically address science communication.
Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) Professors Mike Gore and Sue Stocklmayer recently visited South Africa to run a professional development workshop for 60 communicators at the Sci Bono Discovery Centre in Johannesburg. This was the first step in an AusAid funded project in which eight of the best communicators from South Africa and Lesotho were able to come to Australia to undertake a Graduate Certificate in the Theory and Practice of Science Centres at CPAS. As part of this course they were able to gain some practical experience by spending two weeks at the Questacon science and technology centre working alongside the exhibition designers and planners there.
The students were keen to see how organisations like Questacon approach science education in Australia and how the process might be tailored to suit their own specific audience needs at home.
“Science is science where ever you are” Sivuyile Manxoyi of the South African Astronomical Observatory says, “The concepts and applications are the same, but the way you present science in a teaching context can be very different”
Michael Ellis of the MTN Science Centre in Cape Town agrees, “One feature of South African society is the great differences in wealth and opportunity between different people. So we have to make sure that the programs we offer are both effective and accessible to everyone.”
For example, in some areas it may be more effective to have a travelling education program that engages with people in a more communal way than to have a local centre. Often this kind of local knowledge is the key to success in engaging with people in a way appropriate to their culture and customs.
“Science education is not just about buildings and Centres, it’s about people and the programs they run, where ever that may be.” Sivuyile says.
Australia is fortunate in that as a highly developed and wealthy nation, the vast majority of its teachers have a high level of science education themselves. But in many parts of Africa this is not the case. As well as educating the kids and stimulating their interest in science, science centres in South Africa may also have a role in educating the teachers.
But launching a Science Communication program from scratch is not just a matter of observing the practicalities of designing and building exhibits. It’s also seeing how others have taken a vision and struggled to make it reality.
“It was really inspiring to hear Graham Durant and Mike Gore relate their experiences in developing Science Centres in Australia and the UK. To see what they had been able to achieve from such humble beginnings had real relevance to where we’re at in South Africa.” Sivuyile says, “It really makes us think that we can do this.”
“It’s also been great that Mike and Graham have been so open with their experiences telling us what’s worked for them and what hasn’t.” Bafedile Kgwadi from the South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement adds.
Busiswe Maqubela, operations Manager of the MTN Science centre in Cape Town believes that Australia’s relatively advanced programs of public engagement in science both in the media and in science centres like Questacon and ScienceWorks have benefits that are clear to see.
“One thing that surprised us was how familiar with scientific terms the public in Australia are. Terms that would constitute “jargon” in South Africa are in quite common usage here. Also, scientists in Australia seem much more switched on to the need to communicate what they’re doing to the public.”
“As well as providing experience, training and a professional qualifications to us, coming to Australia has created a new platform to interact with people and form relationships that we hope will continue well into the future” Sivuyile adds.
Professor Sue Stocklmayer agrees, “It’s been a great experience for everyone having these students here. I think they’ve been able to benefit from the unique and highly multifaceted approach at CPAS combining coursework, research and practical experience. And this is great, because these are some of the best communicators on the African continent and they will doubtless play a leading role in the development of science awareness in South Africa and Lesotho. We’re definitely expecting to stay in touch.”