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FEATURE
Science Communication: Science Centre Singapore style
Thomas Danny J

Since 1977, Science Centre Singapore has been in the business of promoting the informal learning of science – stimulating interest, learning and creativity in science and technology through imaginative and enjoyable experiences.

It realizes this through five strategic thrusts: exhibitions that provide opportunities for discovery and experimentation; school enrichment programs which complement the school science syllabi; promotional events that bring science closer to people; learning resources which illustrate and encourage dialogue on the principles of science and technology as well as on the biology and ecology of plants and animals in their natural environment; and partnerships with leadings scientists, universities and research institutions.

It is through the committed and continued development of these five thrusts that we try and engender meaningful and new forms of participation that contribute to the public’s understanding of science.

This endeavor can be challenging, particularly when addressing controversies in science, where there is sometimes friction arising from the convergence of different perspectives. As a perceived gatekeeper of science, we manage these encounters as best we can and are greatly encouraged when as a result, new perspectives on science arise.

Broaching Controversy

One case in point is the most recent blockbuster exhibition that Science Centre’s Travelling Exhibitions group organized in partnership with Kingsmen Exhibits Pte Ltd and Mediacorp VizPro International Pte Ltd.

Titled ‘Titans of the Past: Dinosaurs and Ice Age Mammals’, the exhibition features two international travelling exhibitions, The Growth and Behavior of Dinosaurs – from Museum of the Rockies (MOR) in Montana (United States), and Ice Age, The Exhibition from Aurea Exhibitions in Argentina.

The origins of a number of the dinosaur bones featured in the exhibition, have been sliced open and put back together again by MOR’s curator of paleontology, Dr Jack Horner and his team. Jack Horner, who served as the principal technical adviser for the Jurassic Park films, discovered that more than one-third of all dinosaur species classified from the Cretaceous Period, may actually be juveniles and not different species as determined by paleontologists over the last century.

He justifies his unusual practice with the claim that doing so is the only way scientists can track the development and growth of dinosaurs. The controversy his methods created has since been picked up by the local media and now has some people intrigued about the merits and prospect of cutting open dinosaur bones.

Such unplanned outcomes (of a less ‘bone-shaking’ nature!) have also eventuated as a result of our openness to communicate science (even on less controversial subjects) through other exhibitions at the Centre. They all work together to help visitors transcend their limits of science appreciation, understanding and assimilation, enabling learning to also take place through self-discovery and experimentation.

Leveraging Drama

The Education Programmes Division at Science Centre employs drama among a host of innovative ways to communicate science in a light-hearted, dramatic and sometimes poignant way! To this end, a drama competition titled ‘SSYSF Stage!’ is organized annually as part of the Shell Singapore Youth Science Festival (SSYSF), in partnership with the Science Teachers’ Association of Singapore and the Shell Companies in Singapore.

This popular event attracts enterprising student-actors from more than 20 schools each year. Teams each put up a seven-minute skit based on a science theme, pitching their communication and presentation skills, while role-playing real-life scientific issues, which are relayed to their peers.

In March 2012 and July 2013, the division also organized in collaboration with the ‘Centre for Biomedical Ethics’ and ‘The Necessary Stage’ (a theatre company), a play on human enhancement, entitled ‘Future Perfect’.

Using indigenous and innovative theatre, Future Perfect breathed new life into the everyday relevance of bioethics, weaving in issues concerning the sale of stem cells, the prospect of designer babies through genetic modification and living forever with a youth fountain serum.

Hundreds of school children were treated to outstanding performances by the stellar cast and enlightened by the insightful Q&A sessions that ensued. The lively discussions facilitated by scientists from the Centre for Biomedical Ethics, enabled students to reflect on the bioethical issues in the play and in everyday life. Students also got to navigate the bioethics exhibition using the bioethics trail booklets handed out at the play.

Stepping Out

A slew of activities mark the Centre’s imaginative efforts to step out and communicate science in schools, malls and open venues where different segments of community gather. One such effort is bringing the widely popular Mini Maker Faire (birthed in California) to Singapore, as part of the Singapore Science Festival in August 2012 – proving a first of its kind here, gifting the makers, scientists, artists, hobbyists, tech enthusiasts, crafters, students and commercial exhibitors, a platform to showcase what they have made and share what they have learnt.

The community-driven event, that celebrates the Do-It-Yourself (DIY) spirit, attracted unprecedented attention to its workshops and presentations in 2012, and enjoyed even greater success in July 2013, when Science Centre organized it in partnership with Scape Co. Ltd and held it at their Orchard Link venue.

Over the two years, some 7,000 people have been engaged by over 200 makers through a range of activities covering robotics and Arduino projects, cosplay, 3D printing, and DIY toys and musical instruments to name but a few.

Science on the Go is another outreach initiative which offers convenient, affordable and unique learning experiences to schools. It offers two separate 30-minute science shows on magic and balloons as well as the “Starry Night” outreach program that involves a portable STARLAB planetarium setup.

The planetarium simulates the experience of a starry night sky and the Centre’s science educators share information on the earth’s rotation, seasons, ancient stories of how stars were named and how to identify key constellations – all within a 45-minute program. This program and the two science shows have delighted about 7,000 students since 2012.

Science in the Mall brings exhibits, science performances, demonstrations and hands-on activities to heartland shopping malls, engaging families with fun hands-on science experiments and activities, and encouraging parents to be actively involved in building their children’s interest in science.

Held twice annually during the June and November school holidays, Science in the Mall has over the years, reached out to more than 230,000 children including their families and the general public. The most recent event was themed “X-ploring the World of Energy!” and held over 16 to 24 March 2013 at Parkway Parade, allowing some 13,000 visitors to explore the different forms of energy and learn how they change from one form to another as well as how this affects daily living.

Our science communication foray into malls also includes the setup of seven fun, unusual and interactive outdoor exhibits at the ‘Cascading Sky Park’ in the newly constructed JEM shopping mall. Done in collaboration with Lend Lease, and housed on JEM’s sixth floor, each of the exhibits like ‘Mixing Colors’, ‘Sound Pipe’ and ‘Sun & Wind, carry a panel explaining the relevant principles of science at work.

Stoking Curiosity

Print and online learning resources play a significant part in stoking curiosity, adding value to Science Centre’s science communication efforts. The Centre’s flagship publication – the Singapore Scientist, carries the scientific voice of the institution’s educators and external contributors including academics, researchers, industry practitioners and students – to a readership of 60,000 comprising teachers, students and members of the public.

The endearing content takes the format of feature articles, fun hands-on activities, tricky competitions and mind-bending quizzes, to elevate the learner’s experience. Some of this is cross-posted online on ScienceIt – a dedicated Facebook page which draws out the science in SCS happenings and in everyday life to trigger the inquisitiveness of netizens and to encourage dialogue with and amongst them. Dovetailing the effectiveness of these learning resources are Science Beats, the Centre’s corporate newsletter, the Stir-fried Science blog and the SCS corporate Facebook page.

Partnering Collaborators

Science Centre Singapore has found that working with suitable partners is a tremendous help in science communication, particularly when having to research, develop and present topical and contemporary science.

For the development of its Earth, Our Untamed Planet exhibition, for example, the Centre collaborated with the Earth Observatory Singapore and was able to tap on the expertise of some of the world’s leading scientists in Earth Sciences to develop an exhibition that not only brings the topic to life by featuring many local and regional examples, but also enables the presentation of some of the latest thinking in the field. This resulted in an exhibition that not only engages the public but is also a valuable resource to Science and Geography teachers.

Such collaborations also benefit research institutions by enabling them to fulfill their public outreach mission while leaving the development of the public program to the expertise of the Centre.

The Future

The benefits of science communication at SCS have been manifold, and its nature – quite varied – taking on an active and evolving form of social experimentation in its myriad exhibitions, educational programmes, promotional activities, online and print learning resources, and partnerships. Even as Science Centre Singapore celebrates its 35th birthday this year, it aims to forge ahead making advancements in its all important mission of promoting interest and creative learning in science and technology. It aims to do this by continually sourcing innovative ways and partners to communicate science in the most inspiring and exciting ways possible, for people of all ages.

About the Science Centre Singapore

Over the past 35 years, Science Centre has been a custodian of creativity and innovation, capturing the evolution of scientific developments through unique and relevant exhibitions and shows which continue to ignite young minds and foster new generations of scientifically savvy Singaporeans. Many of its interactive exhibits, housed in 14 galleries, cover a wide range of topics related to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM). As part of the Centre’s commitment to promoting STEM, it also offers and conducts more than a hundred different enrichment programs for students, aimed at complementing the school's formal science education. This is coupled with enriching and fun events, competitions and outreach activities, which than 200,000 students have benefited from in 2012/13. The Science Centre, Omni-Theatre and Snow City have together engaged and enriched more than 29.5 million students and visitors since 1977.

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