A circus, whacky science exhibits, and a panel discussion on science transforming society signalled the start of the run-up to this year's Science Forum South Africa (SFSA).

 

SFSA, a Department of Science and Technology (DST) initiative launched in 2015, provides a platform for government, academia, science councils, non-governmental organisations, business and the public to engage on science.  Public engagement is a vital part of the Forum, aimed at raising awareness that science is for all South Africans.

 

Sponsored by Chevron South Africa, grade 9 learners from Masibambisane Secondary School in Delft descended on the Cape Town Science Centre to participate in the Science Forum initiative, under the theme "Igniting conversations about science".

 

The Mini-Science Forum is a community engagement initiative organised ahead of Science Forum South Africa, which takes place annually at the CSIR International Convention Centre in Gauteng.  The Mini-Science Forum is intended to bring local institutions and government agencies together to create an interest in science.

 

The hosts, the Human Sciences Research Council (HSRC), the International Astronomical Union (Office of Astronomy for Development) and Square Kilometre Array (SKA) South Africa treated learners to an entertaining day aimed at creating enthusiasm for mathematics and science.

 

Learners, most of whom had never been to a circus before, were excited by a skilled and sometimes hair-raising performance by members of the Zip Zap Circus.  Interactive exhibitions engaged them in mathematics and science.

 

During the formal programme, learners were encouraged to take mathematics and science as subjects, as they opened up many career opportunities.  The HSRC's Dr Thierry Luescher told learners that he had never been strong in mathematics, but had realised that it was all about practice.

 

Dr Wanda Diaz Merced mesmerised learners with her story of becoming an astronomer in spite of visual impairment. She told them that astronomy could be used for development in all countries.

 

While there was lots of talking, there was also lots of learning about science through fun-filled activities.  Dr Saahier Parker, a researcher at HSRC, asked learners to take selfies, which they eagerly did.  He then told them to look at their own photographs to see what a scientist looked like.

 

Dr Parker said that it was necessary to "declutter science" to make it available to everyone. "We shouldn't underestimate the power of science fiction," he added.

 

Takalani Nemaungani, the DST's Acting Chief Director: Astronomy, informed his young audience that science engagement was one of the Department's priorities, and that educational resources should be directed to teach all South Africans about the importance of science in everyday life.  He told learners that the first scientific institution to be established in South Africa was the South African Astronomical Observatory in 1820.

 

The panel discussion focused on the subject of "Science transforming society" – transformation still being a critical issue in the South African context.  Science introduces innovative new ways to achieve this.

 

The panel of experts (Dr Luescher, Dr Merced and Dr Anton Binneman of SKA South Africa) discussed topics such as igniting interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics in young children – what we have learned so far and what kinds of interventions seem to work – and the impact of astronomy and large science infrastructure projects such as the SKA on local communities.