Issue Date: May 19, 2008
TAKE 40,000 STUDENTS, more than 500 scientific events, and a lot of energy; then mix them all up in a town of 125,000 inhabitants and you have an experience of a lifetime—SciFest Africa.
The 12th consecutive SciFest Africa, themed "See science through different eyes," was held April 16-22 in Grahamstown, South Africa, and drew students and presenters from all over the world. The goals of the festival are to get schoolchildren excited about science and to develop a culture of science in South Africa so that young students admire scientists in the same way that they admire professional soccer and rugby players.
This annual festival has more than twice as many attendees as an American Chemical Society national meeting, with most of the action occurring in a relatively small convention center. It is not a place for the fainthearted. I have never seen so many excited children all in the same place. The students, called "learners" in South Africa, breathlessly move between lectures and exhibits, deciding whether to attend a local drama company's quirky play about global warming and the effects it has on the polar ice caps or magician and physicist Bob Friedhoffer's informal lecture about the science behind magic.
SciFest was born in 1994, when Brian (Bug) Wilmot, a dragonfly specialist, attended the Edinburgh International Science Festival. Wilmot decided to create SciFest to bring science to young South African students. "Not that we call it science, we call it fun," Wilmot says with a smile. South Africa's festival has been so successful that other science festivals are being modeled after it, including Finland's SciFest Joensuu. One of the many fun and interactive exhibits at this year's SciFest was a virtual-reality tug-of-war in which students in South Africa competed with students in Joensuu.
The 569 events offered at the festival were arranged into a main program organized by SciFest and a fringe program planned and hosted by outside organizations. The main program consisted of 27 lectures (by 12 international and 15 South African scientists); 39 "talkshops," or lectures presented to small groups to allow discussion and debate; 326 interactive workshops; field trips; a laser show; science olympics with events such as bridge building, a balloon-powered rocket race, and trebuchet construction; a science quiz; paper-plane competitions; and 17 film screenings. Fringe contributors included Grahamstown-based Rhodes University, which gave the winner of the science quiz a one-year college scholarship; the University of the Western Cape, in Cape Town; and St. Andrews Preparatory School in Grahamstown.
Try to fit all that into your schedule and still find time to read a newspaper. The School of Journalism & Media Studies at Rhodes University published a low-budget, high-adrenaline daily tabloid, "SciCue," that was distributed to all attendees. Geared toward the older students, the paper reported on the previous day's SciFest activities. On the second day of the festival, for example, headlines included "A Primordial Alphabet Soup," "Sweet-Mouthed Romeos More Likely To Score," "Africa's Nice Rice Man," "Mystifying the Mind," "A Day in the Life of a Marine Biologist," and "Save Energy Now."
I went to SciFest to give a lecture about fluorescent proteins, mosquitoes with glowing gonads, and colorful brain tissue images called brainbows, but I was easily persuaded to also give a talkshop about ethical questions associated with genetic engineering.
THE FIRST ROW of my talkshop was already full when I arrived 20 minutes before I was due to start. The room filled up from the front to the back. I was in for a further surprise when I started chatting to my eager front-rowers; they were part of a group of eight students from the American School of Yaounde, in Cameroon, and had flown to South Africa just for SciFest. Cameroon has 200 different languages; the students all spoke at least one of the Cameroonian languages, as well as French and English. In the coming hours and days, I asked many students where they came from and was surprised to learn many school groups had traveled between five and 10 hours to be part of the SciFest experience.
The flagship events of SciFest are the lectures, for which the speakers are invited a full year before the festival. This year, the presenters included Sir David King, the U.K.'s chief scientific adviser and head of the U.K.'s Office of Science, and plant breeder Monty Jones, World Food Prize laureate in 2004 and one of Time magazine's 100 most influential people in 2007.
More than 400 people attended my lecture, and afterward I spent more than an hour answering questions from inquisitive students. The access students have to scientists, and their ability to ask questions of the scientists, is arguably the most important facet of SciFest.
"In many cases, you are the first real, live scientists the students have ever met," SciFest manager Margaret Wolff told me. "And flesh-and-blood scientists are so much more interesting than the kinds of crazy Einsteins you see on Cartoon Network."
SciFest's Frontiers of Science program gives lecturers a chance to discuss their research in more detail with local scientists at Rhodes University. I addressed their chemistry department, which is small—with just 10 full-time faculty members—but active. For example, chemistry professor Tebello Nyokong, the vice chairwoman of the SciFest national advisory committee, published 35 nanotechnology papers in 2007. The most famous paper to come from the Rhodes chemistry department was written in June 1939, by organic chemist and self-taught ichthyologist James L. B. Smith, who announced the discovery of the coelacanth, a fish previously thought to have been extinct for 65 million years.
SciFest Africa's permanent staff of five people is responsible for finding presenters for more than 500 events and for putting together the complex weeklong program. They supervise 150 interns and volunteers who supplement the staff during the festival. The staff members also find sponsorship for the festival, which allows for an entrance fee of only about $1.00. Besides the obvious challenges of feeding and housing the festival's 45,000 attendees, SciFest's organizers have a uniquely African challenge: South Africa has grown so rapidly that its electricity use has outstripped its electricity production. As a consequence, festival organizers had to work around scheduled 2.5-hour power outages every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning. My hosts in the chemistry department at Rhodes, for example, secured a generator so that they would not have to power down their nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometers during the outages.
FOR THE FIRST 11 years, support for the festival was provided by Sasol, a South African chemical company. This year, Sasol was joined by an insurance company, Old Mutual. The British Council, the Finnish and French Embassies, and the U.S. Agency for International Development sponsored speakers from their home countries. To ensure that students from even the poorest schools could attend the festival, the South African Department of Education funded transportation and admission for two teachers and 30 students from the most disadvantaged schools in each of 35 school districts surrounding Grahamstown.
Recognizing that the hustle and bustle in the conference center must be overwhelming to many of their rural visitors, Scifest organizers employed local university students to act as SciGuides. These guides welcome incoming school groups and give them short introductory tours before letting them run free in what is well-fertilized ground for nuturing future scientists.
Americans can learn a lot from the success of SciFest Africa. We need to do more to change the public's awareness of science and chemistry, and an event like SciFest might help attract more students to the sciences, especially those from underrepresented groups. Wouldn't it be great if we could have an annual ACS ChemFest associated with one of the two national ACS meetings? Imagine busing students from local, economically disadvantaged schools to an ACS ChemFest, where our dynamic faculty, industrial chemists, and students could show off their favorite demonstrations and excite students with cutting-edge chemistry.
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