National Science Week: in search of a bridge between science and the public

National Science Week: in search of a bridge between science and the public

In South Africa, National Science Week has become the Department of Science and Technology’s science engagement flagship activity. First held in 2000, NSW aims to create public awareness of science and technology. Various stakeholders, role players and interest groups collectively conduct activities that promote general awareness of the value of science, technology, mathematics and innovation (STEMI) in people’s daily lives. The theme for 2016 is “Science for Sustainable Development and Improved Quality of Life.” In keeping with this, at the launch of NSW 2016, the Minister of Science and Technology stated that: “Young people here today will also work on [important scientific innovations] if your love of maths and science encourages you to study further at university, so that you are able to help create a better Africa and a better world.”

Since the inception of South Africa’s NSW, overall participation has increased dramatically. Up to 2012, the majority of the participants were school students, but this changed in 2013 when the DST embarked on an awareness and marketing campaign to attract the general public.

National Science Week participation from 2009 to 2015

Students172471196876292397273812244289162143148 956
Educators1070676591399714171582859304 690
Public2099748240322311089003078866430412 212 762
Total2041742527753386253968835580038111142 366 408

The substantial investment by the DST in NSW suggests that the state acknowledges that no matter how technologically sophisticated a country is, it cannot develop its society fully without the active engagement of its citizens. The existence of a democratic political process is necessary, but not sufficient; and public participation in policy decision-making depends on information. The non-scientist is increasingly at a disadvantage because of a lack of information to engage as informed, independent thinkers. In recognition of this, the DST promulgated the Science Engagement Framework in 2015. One of the strategic aims of this framework is to popularise science, engineering, technology and innovation as attractive, relevant and accessible in order to enhance scientific literacy and awaken public interest in relevant careers. Another aim is to develop a critical public that actively engages and participates in the national discourse of science and technology to the benefit of society. Science engagement activities need to encourage critical thinking about, and engagement with, scientific issues among the general public.

Internationally National Science Weeks and science festivals have been used for the promotion and popularisation of STEMI. NSW includes events such as excursions, exhibitions, presentations, demonstrations, quizzes, as well as hands on activities. These activities are a medium through which informal learning takes place. Countries which host annual science weeks include Britain, Australia, the United States of America, Ireland, Germany, China and Brazil. A few African countries have more recently introduced their own NSWs, such as Kenya, and Namibia. Like in South Africa, the aims of the national science weeks around the globe are to make STEM more accessible to the public and to promote STEM careers to learners, while encouraging a more scientifically literate and engaged citizenship.

The increase in South African attendance is encouraging, however, NSW should be judged on two other outcomes. The first is a change in public attitudes towards science, coupled with whether the activities have led to knowledge gain. The purpose of these activities is not provide attendees with substantial amounts of knowledge, but rather to ignite a spark inspiring attendees to seek out more knowledge. The second outcome is meaningful engagement between the public and science practitioners. NSW activities provide an opportunity for this engagement to take place.

Despite the long history of NSW internationally, little has been published in the academic literature on the impact of these events. However, there are evaluation reports which use satisfaction and attitudinal surveys to determine the impact of participating in NSW (and similar science festival) activities. For example, the evaluation of the American science festivals found positive results with regard to the benefits reported by attendees. The attendees reported increased interest in science, that science was made fun and that the festival helped attendees connect to the science happening in their cities.  The European evaluation focused on the impact of the activities on teachers. A majority of the teachers surveyed from 2005- 2011, felt that participation in the activities increased their joy and motivation for teaching science. In addition, teachers reported that they would incorporate ideas from the activities into their lessons.  In South Africa, it was found that visitors rated the success and quality of NSW 2015 events very highly and were willing to communicate about and recommend NSW events to other people. The HSRC participant evaluation study showed that participants had positive attitudes towards Mathematics and Science, and STEMI related careers.

While true, active participation by the public in policy decision-making is currently a distant goal; initiatives such as NSW provide unique opportunities for the average person, who very rarely has the chance to experience science in action. This is perhaps the first step in a direction that may ultimately lead to more scientific awareness, participation and critical thinking among South Africa’s citizens.