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Whizzing marshmallows, kangaroos: Oz experts’ Science Circus enthrals, educates kids

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By Sahana Ghosh
Kolkata, June 22 (IANS)
Wonder what a ‘Science Circus’ show looks like ? Well, try launching toy kangaroos with liquid nitrogen and imagine marshmallows whizzing past air straight from a vacuum cleaner.

These are just some of the huge variety of interesting teaching chops showcased by Australian science communicator duo, Graham Walker and Stuart Kohlhagen, in their ‘Science Circus’ acts across Asia and Africa where they say there is a “great thirst” for knowledge.

For decades, through use of humble everyday materials, Stuart and Graham, have shown the beauty of science to young minds in what they describe as “science on road” and “traveling circus.”

“Science Circus has been going on for more than three decades. Bringing it overseas is something which we have been doing for 15 years. In recent times, the programme has gone to South Africa and around. I have just finished working for two months in southeast Asia working with universities and teachers bringing hands-on entertainment and curiosity,” Stuart told IANS.

Comparing the needs in Asia and Africa, Stuart said in both regions there is a “deeper recognition” of education as means to self-improvement.

“There is a great thirst for knowledge and a deeper recognition that the path to self-improvement and better standards of living is through education. In Africa, the challenge is even less infrastructure (than in India) and there is much less of everything, except people.

“The amount of training available to teachers is much less in Africa and that is also the situation in some of the emerging southeast Asian countries, particularly in Cambodia, where it’s in a bootstrap phase.

“The quality of education depends on the quality of the teachers and the teachers are the products of that education system so some of those countries are starting to put more effort into it. This is the reason why we want to bring humble materials to those communities so they dont have to wait for high-tech stuff. They can start now and they can get excellent academic outcome by just using those props,” he said.

Graham and Stuart performed here at the Science City as part of their maiden outing in India, spanning 10 cities in 12 days. They had the audience of school goers spellbound with experiments involving liquid nitrogen and interactive sessions where students volunteered to think aloud solutions to problems in different ways.

“We go into town, we set up, we do our performance, we work with people and we pack up and move onto the next town just like a traveling circus. The model of touring and taking it around was honed and polished within Australia but then it proved very useful set of skills and approaches to take the engagement and curiosity anywhere in the world,” said Stuart.

The show kicked-off with Graham mixing vinegar and baking soda in a container and as it popped, he explained how carbon-dioxide bubbles create pressure making the sound. He went on to bigger containers and even fabricated make-shift cannons as the duo broke down the scientific concepts to a level easily understood by the audience.

In another demonstration on reflection of light and mirror images, Stuart fielded questions to the students.

“You have the curiosity to think about it and answer. I am never going to tell you the answer. Once you have it, you will forget it.”

International Yoga Day was also brought in, in another puzzle, that involved students standing in a circle hand-in-hand.

The shows are customised to country, region and the audience.

For India, it was more of a “festival” kind of an event.

“In southeast Asia they were just as engaging, a bit less of the spectacle we have for India. They were just as surprising. For experiments, we used objects like pieces of paper, coffee cups and aluminium foil. While you are using humble materials, it doesn’t mean the science is trivial. In hils of northern Thailand, I have done workshops with tribes, just using bamboo and banana leaves,” said Stuart.

He says sometimes the pace of a tour can be “challenging” while other times language can be an issue.

“We have to get comfortable with the translator. Its just an extra challenge,” he noted.

The programme was rganised by National Council of Science Museums (NCSM) in partnership with Australian National University and is supported by the Australian Government.

To devise the experiments, the duo pare down laboratory demonstration to their scientific underpinnings.

“We have our own creativity and we will look at standard textbooks to kind of strip down and see what’s the real thing to observe here,” Stuart said.

But why put so much effort into physical learning in the age of digital delivery ?

“You don’t have everything available online. You don’t have the experience. What you have is content. You don’t have that experience of science as you have in a real environment. Through their participation the students are seeing it for real. Physical learning is not just a different way of learning, but its a way of learning different skills,” he said.

(Sahana Ghosh can be contacted at sahana15ghosh@gmail.com)

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