Monday, 26 June 2006

The Shell Questacon Science Circus turns 21 - and its 5 years since 2001

The Shell Questacon Science circus, the most extensive science outreach program of its kind in the world, celebrated its 21st birthday with a gala event and a book launch in the Great Hall of Parliament House last week.

Each year, the circus sees over 100000 people, travels 25000 kilometres, runs professional development courses for 600 teachers and visits about 30 remote aboriginal communities as well as hospitals, nursing homes and special schools. The Circus is supported by the Shell Company in Australia, The Australian National University and Questacon, with the sponsors at the event confirming their support into the future. I’m a graduate from the class of 2001.

Canberra turned on a typical day for the occasion, with the top temperature of 5 degrees only being reached when the fog cleared at 4 pm. A crowd of 400 well rugged up guests, including members of parliament, past and present circus members, distinguished guests and school children from Evatt and St Thomas More’s primary schools, travelled to parliament house, where the circus had set up a number of interactive exhibits.

Questacon, the National Science and Technology Centre, was opened in 1980 by the ANU, and was then located at the former Ainslie Primary School in Canberra with only 15 interactive exhibits. However, there was a desire, in the words of founding director Mike Gore, that Questacon “should not simply be another building but that it must develop programmes that will reach out to all Australians – both in our cities and in the remote rural areas”. So Questacon got together with Shell, always looking to work on their public image, as well as focusing on science and education, and ANU, who provide the academic qualifications to those who run the circus, and in 1985 started the national touring program.

"The principal strength of the Science Circus, and the reason it has remained as one of the world’s leading science centre outreach programmes, is because of this partnership between two national institutions and the private sector," said Graham Durant.

Russell Caplan, Chairman Shell Companies in Australia, was pleased to announce Shell’s commitment to the circus for the next three years, "It is with pleasure that Shell commits to the future of this programme for the next three years so that it can continue to bring groundbreaking science experiences to regional and remote Australia."

ANU Vice-Chancellor Professor Ian Chubb was glowing in his praise of the circus, as well as of his own university. “More than 250 science communicators have graduated from the programme via ANU to make a contribution in media, government and the private sector. The ANU Science Communication course at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science is very much at the heart of the Science Circus.”

5 years on from my own circus year, here are my not particularly sciencey, largely censored, in no particular order, and including everyone, top ten things I remember about 2001:

1.Team Speedball – James, Cristy and myself assembled Speedball, the exhibit where you throw a tennis ball at a speed gun, so many times in 2001 that we could do it blindfolded. That exhibit has also given me 5 years of physio on my shoulder – for the record my best was in the 120s, only beaten that year by an 8 foot professional baseballer, or at least that’s what I remember. We also entertained each other, laughed, cried, and saw aliens together on the remote aboriginal communities tour. I’m still searching for the video James made from that tour, if anyone has it.

2. Dave’s Bone – Dave had massive cow leg bone that he was to use in his structures show. We travelled with it all through northern NSW, until it was tragically lost. I’m not sure if Dave knows this, but Marcus found it and hid it for a while. You’re outed Marcus!

3. The moobs cake – Anita and Belinda decided I had male breasts, and so made me a cake on my birthday in far north Queensland shaped as such. Quite obviously, I do not possess such features. Although, as I am continuously told, I have lost weight since then (I’m all of 6 foot and 75 kg by the way, and was back then too!)

4. Balloons – Doing the balloon show with Olivia, and have one student leave in tears screaming "Not the balloon, noooo!" when I threatened to pop one. And how easy it was to amuse high school students with the big long balloon.

5. Eating and Drinking – The Cowra trip with Merryn, Deno and Pete contained some fantastic cooking from Pete. I also remember a Melbourne Cup themed evening with Lish in Victoria – I made Hors Doeuvres, get it??? – and end-of-the-foodbox dinners were always something to behold. It was easy to tell that Anita and Olivia sustained themselves on beans most of the time. Only two of us completed 100 shots of beer in 100 minutes when we decided to tackle that obstacle. One was myself; the other was Merryn, who has returned as coordinator in 2006 to teach them a thing or two. The next morning we had to find lost hire car keys – we did end up finding them in a wet sticking garbage bin at the bottom of a large skip. I apologise for not contributing much to the search. I didn’t lose them by the way, the culprit shall remain nameless.

6. Love - The rumour that Owen and Lish were secretly dating at the end of the year. Liz and Cristy coming all the way down to Victoria to cheer up me and James. Marcus and Nadya in FNQ. Sam celebrating her one-year wedding anniversary in a Hungry Jacks somewhere near Moree. And what happened in outback NT stays in outback NT.

7. Flight – Richard doing the flight show and throwing his plane into a fluorescent light, making it fall from the roof and smash. More than once do I remember Richard throwing that polystyrene plane into a roof or ceiling fan.

8. Truckie – Mick the truck driver. Nuff said.

9. Schools and Science – yes we must be a little serious and soppy and say that the actual experience of going to the schools was amazing. We sometimes did silly things (planes into ceilings, a smashed flask of liquid nitrogen), we sometimes did odd shows (did I hear someone say “light show” James?) but all in all it was a fantastic time that I think I am only appreciating 5 years out. It’s a pretty cool buzz you get from it, and the hours of travelling were totally made up for once we got to the schools. Seeing Mez and Deno putting in such a big effort now makes me think I should humbly apologise to Lish, Fletch and Pete for all the stuff I put them through. I might, later...

10. And to finish... Music – The continuous beat that surrounded Graham everywhere he went. However, this was not the musical highlight of my year – that honour falls to Scandal’us, that supreme band from Popstars 2, who Belinda and I met at Canberra airport. I also have strong memories of James singing Sheena Easton’s classic "My baby takes the morning train", and "Oh Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz". Second in my musical highlights comes from the Marco show Marcus and I decided to put on, a show which revolved around two wizards, myself (the straight one) trying to help Marcus (the funny one) recover his voice, which had been lost in a failed experiment, and along the way turning him into a dog. At the end we form a band, as you do. Ah, what brilliant songs, and the one school we actually did the songs it in front of – we retired them after that show, although we continued to do the rest of it – loved it, even though we were rather embarrassed so ran out of the classroom at the end. I have recently uncovered the songs from the depths of my old computer – reworded versions of Eminem’s "Stan", and the Flintstones theme. I vividly remember saying to Marco during the show "Hey Marco, lets do the songs!" With Marcus saying, “No, I don’t think that’s a good idea” with his eyes saying "You idiot Marc! Don’t you even think about it." In any case, I won out and we did them – but only once.

My Nitrogen's gone cold, I'm wondering why it's messing with my senses
The morning rain clouds up my window, cause when warm air cools it condenses
And even if it didn't, it'd be a gas, but at minus 197 Celsius
It's a liquid and its not a gas, its not a gas

Dear Marcos, I wrote you but you still aint callin'
I watched your science show, it was enthrallin'
You know man when you got the chain and ball
And put it in the nitrogen it got small
I didn't get it, so why don't you call?

Sometimes I take notes too sloppy when I jot 'em
And the show was cool, but how it happened I forget 'em
I'm going to start my own band too man
I got the dances and the dance moves, just like you taught 'em
Guess what I’m going to call it man, I'm a name it Marco

I'm sorry to hear about Marco's finger
I hope it grew back, he's a good singer
I got a room full of your posters and pictures man
I know you probably get this every day, but I’m your biggest fan
Hit me back, just to chat, your biggest fan, this is ...........
PS We should be together too

Dear ...........
We meant to write to you soon sooner, but we've been busy
We hear you're forming a band, how far along is ya
Look, we're really flattered that you called your band that
And just remember, when things get cold they contract

And remember, when it comes to vibrations, slow is low
And when it comes to instruments man, home made is the go
So now you know
But we gotta split now, we gotta hit the road

Cause we gotta see all the schools
But you guys were really cool
You guys are a good crowd
Stay proud
We'll see you round
This is Marco

Our other song was from the Flintstones:

Nitrogen, liquid nitrogen
It's the coldest thing you've ever seen
It's a boiling liquid
At minus 197 degrees

If you put a balloon into it
You will see it shrink down quite a bit
We know sounds are caused by
Vibrations, yes vibrations
And if you do it slow
You'll get a low note
But if you do it fast
You'll get a high note

Ah educational, and fun.

Listen to this show here, and hear me sing (oh dear)...

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