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Jena Shaw was just eight years old when a 30-tonne multi-coloured truck rolled up to her town hall in Cessnock, a former mining community. A team of science students piled out and rigged up fire-blowing tubes, racetracks and water fountains.

“They threw a bucket of slime and then stirred and bent a spoon in it to demonstrate the laws of Physics” says Jena. “We were captivated.”

The spectacle was part of a unique programme, the Shell Questacon Science Circus, which brings science alive for children across Australia.

Mental acrobatics

science circus

The Questacon Science Circus truck transports interactive exhibits and circus team members across Australia

Australia has some of the most remote communities in the world, such as islands near the Great Barrier Reef and villages in vast deserts.

Children in such places often have scarce entertainment; at school their opportunities for interacting with science are limited.  

“There are a lot of communities in Australia that are socially disadvantaged by the tyranny of distance.” says Graham Durant, Director of Questacon, The National Science and Technology Centre in Australia. “We have a responsibility to reduce that geographic isolation and allow people to fulfil their potential.”

To combine fun with learning and spark young people’s interest in science, Questacon, the Australian National University in Canberra and Shell launched a three-way partnership.

University postgraduates studying science communication take interactive exhibits to schools and town halls in remote locations, supported by Shell.

The programme encourages children to go on and study engineering, mathematics or physics and, Shell hopes, will nurture engineers of the future.

A world tour

children enjoy circus

Children enjoy the fun of the science circus

In 28 years the circus has visited 90 indigenous communities and 490 towns in Australia, presenting to more than 2.2 million schoolchildren. In other countries, science centres are also working to adopt the science circus model. These include the Chinese Science and Technology Museum in Beijing and the International Science Circus Safari Africa, where isolated communities are also a challenge and teaching materials are simple. Questacon is starting to use video-conferencing to stay in touch with circus spectators and to reach more people around the world.

 

The circus has prompted many young spectators to pursue a career in science, including Jena who went on to deliver the programme and now teaches physics and chemistry to children in Cooma. “I use interactive experiments like those in the circus to excite my students,” she says. “You can see how a light bulb goes on in their minds”.