Becoming a circus master

Publication date
Monday, 27 Feb 2017

I never thought I’d be setting my hands on fire for a university degree.

So why did I choose to turn myself into a portable marshmallow toaster? Well, I love the face a kid pulls when they’ve just seen something awesome. I’d been working casually at a science centre in Perth, Western Australia when I realised I wanted to make a career out of blowing people’s minds, and blowing things up.

I discovered that the Australian National University (ANU) partners with Questacon each year, with support from Shell, to train a bunch of enthusiastic science lovers and prepare them for touring around Australia in a giant truck filled with equipment for making people excited about the world around them.

And they pay you to do it.

So, I packed up my belongings and moved to Canberra to join the Shell Questacon Science Circus as part of a Master of Science Communication Outreach from ANU. Here’s what my first week was like:

The week began by meeting the founder of Questacon, Professor Mike Gore. He explained how science communication has the power to inspire, and to help people change their perceptions about their world. I felt incredibly privileged to now be taking part in this noble profession.

The 16 Science Circus members were given a behind-the-scenes tour of Questacon, visiting places like ‘The Cloud’ and ‘The Cage’, and were shown how to turn simple everyday objects into useful scientific apparatus – like using a vacuum cleaner as a marshmallow bazooka, or a prawn chip can as an internal combustion engine.

While I was learning to do the extraordinary during the day, at night I was focusing on more ordinary matters. I’d been lucky enough to find a house on the bus route to both ANU and Questacon, house-sharing with a STEAM education entrepreneur, a French language teacher and a psychology student. On my first weekend, I climbed Mt Ainslie to explore the natural beauty on Canberra’s doorstep (which was an extraordinary feat in itself for a couch potato like me). I think it will be much easier to inspire people to find wonder in the world around them when I’m surrounded by the wonder of Australia’s bush capital.

As the week drew to a close, we began to learn the tricks of the science communication trade. I was taught how to (safely) create a roaring fire ball, whip up a fire tornado, and (yes, safely) set fire to my own hands. I feel like this is only the warm up, with much bigger things to come.