Science Circus innovations go global

The Science Circus is a well-loved Australian institution. But its influence reaches well beyond Australia.

The program is an initiative of the Australian National Centre for the Public Awareness of Science (CPAS) at ANU, run in partnership with Questacon, The National Science and Technology Centre.

CPAS Master students take science centres on the road to deliver jaw-dropping performances in Australian schools, as well as engaging teacher development workshops and intriguing hands-on exhibitions for the wider community.

Outside Australia, CPAS shares its model. The Science Circus has travelled three times to various countries in Africa, thrilling students and inspiring teachers. Using materials obtained locally, CPAS visitors trained hundreds of African teachers and staff and left them with equipment to run their own inspiring science programs. Last year the Science Circus toured India. Destinations for 2018 include southern and east Africa and Japan.

Dr Graham Walker is the Academic Program Convenor of the Masters of Science Communication Outreach program at CPAS. He says that his work in other countries is to “Find people heading to the same destination – on the same mission – and help them get there a little faster.”

One of Walker’s most indefatigable partners is Knowledge Chikundi, of Zimbabwe. Walker refers to Chikundi as a “one-man NGO.”

Chikundi was already working to change the course of science education in Zimbabwe when he first connected with CPAS on Facebook, while the Science Circus was visiting neighbouring Zambia.

Starting with a single school in 2013, Chikundi organized graduate students to assist primary and high school students to complete science fair projects. In that year and the following year, passing rates in science at the school improved dramatically. Building on that success, the science fair platform was expanded to the rest of Zimbabwe. In 2016, for the first time, Zimbabwe sent its national science fair winner to the Intel Science and Engineering Fair in Arizona, USA.

Still eager to inspire, and taking tips from his new communication channel with CPAS and Walker, Chikundi looked for other ways to promote science to students in Zimbabwe and neighbouring countries.

Noticing that a science fair project was a high entry bar for many students, Chikundi started the Science Busker’s Festival – importing the concept from Singapore, and enlisting help from CPAS and the Australian Embassy in Zimbabwe. Students prepare a presentation on a science phenomenon, and then perform for an audience. The inaugural Festival took place in Harare in March of 2017, with over 200 entries from six African countries. In 2018 it will be held in Zambia.

In 2016, with support from DFAT’s Direct Aid Program, Walker travelled to Zimbabwe to train and tour with Chikundi and his team over two weeks. Walker left behind key equipment, including a PA system.

The project reached over 5000 people across Zimbabwe. More importantly it empowered Chikundi’s team to continue the Science Circus and make it their own – gaining confidence and inspiration to use everyday materials to do extraordinary science. Chikundi’s team went on to run ongoing programs in Zimbabwe and more recently in Zambia to share the model with others.

This capacity development is the heart of the Science Circus model in developing countries.

In May 2017 Chikundi and other science communication pioneers from eight African countries travelled to ANU as recipients of the Australia Awards Fellowships program. For six weeks they were immersed in a training program at CPAS to create and develop interactive science centres in Africa. The training involved everything from learning to write grants to building interactive science exhibits.

Chikundi found the additional CPAS training to be transformative.

Since his return from Australia, he has successfully applied the new skills – even converting his garage into a makeshift exhibit workshop. He frequently travels to some of the most remote areas of Zimbabwe to make presentations to students who have had little access to hands-on science, and to help local teachers create robust science programs.

“The messages I receive back from students are so touching,” he says. In one village, he asked students before his presentation what they wanted to be. “One girl said she wanted to be a housemaid in the nearest city. After the show, she said she wanted to be an astronaut.”