Stimulating a scientific society

SciFest Africa (formerly Sasol SciFest), which is South Africa’s National Science Festival and takes place in Grahamstown in late March or early April every year, was the first festival of its kind on the continent.

This celebration of science was launched in 1997 as a high-profile, national event to promote a culture of science in a festive way. The festival aims to break through popular misconceptions and create a new mindset about science, technology, engineering and mathematics by demonstrating that these disciplines underpin people’s everyday activities.

‘SciFest Africa strives to offer its visitors an experience that leaves them open mouthed saying ‘Wow!’ and realising that when it comes to science and maths these are not subjects to be afraid of, but rather to be embraced and to challenge yourself with,” says Margaret Wolff, manager of SciFest Africa.

She says visitors are able to interact with science in a colourful and non-threatening environment, while the festival’s range of interactive events provides learners with a great opportunity to discover science outside the classroom.

SciFest Africa also allows South Africa and the world’s leading scientists the opportunity to share their work, make science accessible to and within the reach of ordinary people, give career guidance and act as role models for our youth.

Internationally renowned scientists who have lectured at SciFest Africa include Nobel Laureates Sir Harold Kroto and Sir John Sulston, Drs Jane Goodall and Khotso Mokhele and Professors Shiv Visvanathan, Tebello Nyokong and Anusuya Chinsamy-Turan.

SciFest Africa 2008, the first festival to carry its new name, attracted a record number of people with more than 58 000 from all over South Africa and the world enjoying 575 events. About 25 000 tickets were sold.

Every year SciFest surveys about 800 to 1 000 visitors. The survey provides valuable information on the race, gender and age of visitors to the festival. It also provides visitors the opportunity to offer suggestions and give feedback, which are seriously considered in the planning of the next festival.

Wolff says it was through this process that the need for regional festivals became apparent.

‘SciFest launched its first regional festival in Mthatha in August, which was highly successful.”

She says it is difficult to evaluate whether SciFest Africa makes a difference on a day-to-day basis to learners and educators, though. There is growing evidence from the survey data of public attitudes to science and maths changing and that more people understand the necessity of these subjects for the growth of the nation.

‘In an attempt to be even more proactive SciFest Africa strives to have all teachers attend with their learners and accept material to take back to the classroom to follow up with what they learned at SciFest Africa.”

SciFest Africa also presents a range of outreach programmes:

  • SciFest Africa-on-the-road is an annual 14-day tour reaching 6 000 learners;
  • SciFest Africa Deep Rural Programme takes interactive science programmes to historically disadvantaged schools;
  • SciFest Africa Science Shows are demonstrations using everyday items presented by a team of specially-trained university science students in shopping centres, schools and public events;
  • National Science Week in the Eastern Cape annually has a major component of hands-on workshops and science shows presented by a SciFest team.

Wolff forecasts growth for SciFest Africa: ‘Ideally we would like SciFest Africa to become like the National Arts Festival, which is known throughout the country. We would like all South Africans to know that SciFest Africa takes place in Grahamstown in late March or early April every year and they have to be at the festival if they want to be entertained at the cutting edge of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.”

She says a sign of this growth is that both the general public and scientific community are beginning to associate with the SciFest Africa brand.

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