Africa needs more ‘hands-on’ science centres

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There are few science centres that offer hands-on experience for young people in Africa. Support is needed for an expansion plan, says Graham Durant.

Science centres are vibrant hubs of informal educational activity. In 1970, there were only two in the world: the Exploratorium in San Francisco, United States, and the Ontario Science Centre in Toronto, Canada. Today, that number has mushroomed dramatically. There are now around 2,500 science centres globally, with many more being built.

Each year, more than 310 million people participate in both local activities and international networks organised by and through science centres. They can promote a positive view of science, and engage young people in important science-based issues that cross political, economic and geographic boundaries.

The current SCEnaRioS (Science Centers Engagement and the Rio Summit) project chosen by the Association of Science and Technology Centres (ASTC) is one example. Through this project, science centres are running discussions about water issues among secondary school students in Australia , China,  Colombia, Singapore and the United States; about health topics with students in Brazil and Mozambique; and about energy with students in Canada, Denmark, Israel and the United States.

Science centres have grown rapidly in the Americas, Asia-Pacific and Europe, as the value of hands-on experiential learning in science has been recognised. But Africa has yet to see a similar expansion. Of 54 African countries, only four have science centres, and these are not as advanced as elsewhere. 

As Africa strives to fight poverty and achieve education for all under the Millennium Development Goals, it needs science centres to stimulate a love of learning and motivation for generating technological knowledge through hands-on engagement and inspiration.

Capacity for more centres

The opportunity for Africa was highlighted in September this year when the world science centre community convened in Cape Town, South Africa, for the 6th Science Centre World Congress. The meeting brought together more than 500 delegates from 54 countries to discuss science centres in an African context.

A three-day capacity building workshop that attracted 90 delegates from 11 countries took place before the meeting. It was organised in response to a call by Mohamed Hassan, former head of TWAS, the Academy of Sciences for the Developing World, during a keynote speech at the previous world congress in 2008. 

He called then for establishing science centres in every African country, especially those lacking scientific capacity, and linking them with academic institutions.

"[Science] academies are usually the homes of the grandfathers and grandmothers," Hassan said. "Science centres are the places that delight the young. Linking these is key to creating solutions that will sustain us across the generations."

Leaders of the world science centre networks have now signed a declaration in Cape Town that has committed international support to the development of science centres in Africa.

Five year action plan

The next step is to develop a strategic plan that turns aspiration into action, and the Cape Town workshop proposed a five-year programme, and to raise the money to make this programme a reality.

Activities include developing existing African networks of science centres to promote information exchange among civil servants, universities, institutes and the centres; producing advocacy resources and impact studies; and linking to networks and organisations beyond the continent.

The plan also calls for a capacity-building programme that supports managers and leaders, promotes international staff exchange and sets up thematic workshops to build skills.

Science institutes and universities can support both existing and new science centres. International ‘twinning’ relationships can create content and also develop a virtual science centre for Africa.

Science centres started locally, developed regionally and are now cooperating globally. There are many different models — from centres in iconic buildings to those without walls that deliver community programmes. They need to be matched with local and national needs to ensure sustainability and relevance. 

Speeding up progress

The programme needs to attract international funders, industrial sponsors and existing science centres for practical and financial support. Events to raise the profile of the sector will help garner support — for example, an international science circus ‘safari’ will take place in 2013.

Much can be achieved through contributions from established science centres and networks throughout the world. But funds are needed to build momentum and help the African project to have greater impact over the first few years — bearing in mind it took the world science centre community 40 years and much investment locally to grow from humble beginnings.  

Elements of the project, such as building a new science centre, can be expensive. The plan calls for US$2 million a year for five years to be raised to support pan-African capacity building, which will make an enormous difference on the ground.

The vision is to stimulate enthusiasm for science and encourage cross-border dialogue among young Africans connected to the world community.

It is time for African countries to join the world science centre community and we are standing by to support this development.

Graham Durant is director of Questacon, Australia’s National Science and Technology Centre and a visiting fellow at the Centre for the Public Awareness of Science at the Australian National University.