Regional communities get in on the STEM education

Why should city kids have all the STEM fun? 

For two years running, the Aboriginal Drug and Alcohol Council has presented the Ceduna Science Fair, delivering tonnes of fun to the coastal community.

The talent comes direct from Adelaide, in a neat package called The Science Collective.

It’s a tantalising taste of spectacular science experiments, animal encounters, dinosaur discoveries and more. A glimpse of an alternate reality, or a vision of the future. 

But for the rest of the year, the audience is starved of science. And hungry. 

In early 2021, the co-ordinator of ADAC’s Youth and Wellbeing Program at Ceduna, Michelle Cholodniuk, decided she wanted to host a science fair. 

She had been “looking at the connection between STEM and wellbeing” and decided a good dose of science, technology, engineering and mathematics would work wonders. 

So she put a program proposal together and her CEO said yes. Then she discovered The Science Collective and the real work began, starting with sponsorship. 

Mineral sands company Iluka became the major sponsor. 

Girl plays with an activity on a table
Ceduna Science Fair. Credit: Michelle Cholodniuk

Over three days, hundreds of people of all ages and from all over the region experienced STEM. They came from Yalata, Penong, Streaky Bay, even Port Lincoln, 4-hours away. 

Sunday September 11, 2022 was the free community day at Ceduna Memorial Hall. School events were then held at Ceduna Area School on the Monday and Crossways Lutheran School on the Tuesday, with both schools also hosting students from other schools. 

“It’s just amazing to see the looks on their faces, the excitement, amazement and it’s important that our youth and community can have exposure to STEM,” Cholodniuk says. 

“I’m so proud that I’ve been able to do this in my community, and that my community is backing me and loving it.” 

Ms Cholodniuk believes these experiences and opportunities to explore STEM career paths will help release kids from intergenerational poverty.

Now as manager of the Stepping Stones Day Centre in Ceduna, Cholodniuk will continue to organise the Science Fair. 

“Every year I want to expand it and make it bigger and better,” she says.

“I like that idea in America of Science Fairs, with contests and I want to get different people involved, so it’s exciting and different each time. Next time we’ll have a Science Fair and Careers Expo in one.”

School students holding a crocodile
Ceduna Area School students Zoe McGuinness, holding the crocodile, with Jasmine Hoffrichter / Credit: Michelle Cholodniuk

Jasmine Hoffrichter, 16, in Year 11 at Ceduna Area School says the “interactive experience really opened people’s eyes to science being, not just really hard, sitting in an office chair with a lab coat on, but also getting outdoors and doing practical things, not just theory”. 

She’s now interested in getting more involved in science, particularly agricultural science with practical application such as increasing crop yield and breeding drought-tolerant wheat.  

But she’s a bit worried about the prerequisites for university studies, because “our school doesn’t offer chemistry (otherwise) I would have picked it”.

“A lot of kids go to boarding school once they’ve hit year 9, 10 and 11,” she says. 

“We have 20 in our home group in Year 11 but not many people are interested in the sciences, because we haven’t really have been given an open introduction to it.”

Principal Mark Prince says the school “probably has the capacity” to teach chemistry in Year 11 and 12, but “kids tend not to pick the subject”.

“We don’t and haven’t run chemistry for a long, long time. And that’s purely student choice,” he says. 

“It’s there, all you’ve got to do is select it. And then if we can get a class, away we go … We’ve got an ex industrial chemist who’s teaching science and maths. So it’s not a stretch to be able to provide that opportunity.”

The school is currently running physics, biology and scientific studies (which includes aquaculture) for senior students. 

Prince says the entire school found the Science Fair “entertaining, informative and educational”.  

“It’s about broadening horizons,” he says.

“They don’t know what they don’t know. So having the opportunity to expose students to different careers paths is of a vital importance … We don’t have scientists and things like that, floating around in our community.”

Woman stands in front of a class of students, she is lighting a fireball at the end of a taper on a long stick. The children have their hands over their ears
Nitro Nat performs her Phantastic Physics Show for 200 students at the Kimba Area School on Wednesday September 14, 2022 (on the way back from Ceduna). Credit: Brian Haddy.

The Science Collective received a 12-month state government grant to help support visits to regional areas. 

Minister for Education Training and Skills, Blair Boyer believes “encouraging STEM is incredibly important, particularly to students who are sometimes under represented in the field”.

“Particularly in regional areas, programs like the Ceduna Science Fair, provide vital networks and opportunities to engage with STEM education,” he says.

“It opens the door to a number of incredible careers and it’s critical we provide our students with access to these opportunities.”

Director Brian Haddy said the gang had been to Mount Barker, Victor Harbor, Port Pirie, Ceduna and Kimba so far this year. Next will be Mount Gambier on November 13.

He’s particularly pleased with the Scientriffic Women series of panel discussions, which have been held so far at Cornerstone College, Mount Barker; Investigator College, Victor Harbor; and most recently, Ceduna, where Natalia Dworniczek of Nitro Nat and Kristen Messenger of Bugs n Slugs gave their personal perspectives. 

Woman wearing safety goggles holds a conical flask filled with white fog
Nitro Nat at the Ceduna Science Fair. Credit: Michelle Cholodniuk

The series tackles the STEM gender gap, which becomes obvious in the middle of secondary school when students begin to choose areas of study. 

In SA government schools, year 12 males outnumber females 4 to 1 in physics, almost 2 to 1 in advanced mathematics, and more than 10 to 1 in Digital Technologies.

The trend continues into tertiary education where women are particularly under-represented in STEM disciplines in vocational education and training (VET) and university courses, despite more women earning more degrees. 

Australia’s STEM-skilled workforce comprises 68% VET qualified, and 32% university qualified workers. Of those with VET qualifications, only 9% are women. Of university qualified workers, 29% are women.

Two boys stand in front of tower on a table made from spaghetti and marshmallows
A spaghetti and marshmallow tower at the inaugural Port Pirie Winter Festival on Saturday August 6, 2022. Two local boys were very proud of their creation. Credit: Brian Haddy.

Education Department staff Julie Frittum and Katrina Elliott encourage presenters at the Scientriffic sessions to ask students what real-world problems they want to solve, rather than what careers they want to pursue. They say the discussion can then shift to the kinds of careers that could contribute to solving these problems, and the skills and knowledge a student requires to follow a career path. 

“Authentic female role models can inspire students to realise their potential and counteract the myths and stereotypes,” they say. “The Scientriffic Collective is an opportunity to share knowledge, attitudes, experiences, and social contacts that female students may or may not have been exposed to.”

They were pleased to see the feedback from the Scientriffic session at Victor Harbor: “50% of respondents said they were now considering STEM as a future career; with a further 39% of students still considering it as a potential career. That’s 89% of the cohort finding a STEM career as something worth considering after the Scientriffic Women Seminar.”

Explore this topic further using the government’s STEM Equity Monitor

Pop-up Science Fairs can be likened to the Science Circus, based in Canberra at the Australian National University, which has been rolling around the country for decades.

Dr Cobi Calyx is a Research Fellow in Science Communication at University of New South Wales, who has published on the history of science circuses. 

She says the concept can be traced back to a 1941 in the US when General Motors promoted a travelling science circus that focused on scientific advancements. This included part of its famed Futurama exhibit, introduced in 1939 at the New York World’s Fair. 

It included a big tent and sideshows that were transported using more than 20 vehicles referred to as a “Parade of Progress.” 

“Programs like the Ceduna Science Fair provide vital networks and opportunities to engage with STEM education.”

Blair Boyer MP, South Australian minister for education, training and skills

The chairman of General Motors said the circus aimed to raise awareness of the importance of research and promote increased funding for the development of new technologies.

Australia’s Science Circus began in 1985. Michael Gore, who founded the associated Australian National Science and Technology Centre, known as Questacon, wanted to share the centre’s successful science shows with Australians living in regional areas. After well-received tours around the Australian Capital Territory region, the circus gained sponsorship from Shell in 1988, establishing a consistent presence.

Calyx says the trend tendency towards science circuses, tours and visiting the regions continues, but it’s important to recognise the regions are rich in science and technology.

“We need to recognise First Nations science and then, there’s a bunch of jobs in regions that are science and technology,” she says. “Australia has been a world leader in agricultural science and agricultural technologies.”

Man in a lab coat sits on a table and holds a fossil, talking to an audience offscreen
Ceduna Science Fair. Credit: Michelle Cholodniuk

A decade ago, Calyx was involved in the early phases of the federal government’s Inspiring Australia initiative, when regional hubs were in development. She visited regional centres including Mt Gambier and Alice Springs, the latter as part of outreach for the World Solar Challenge – which is another long-standing roadshow of showcasing a different variety of STEM.

“You need to actually support communities,” she says. 

“When you invest in training and education for the community, actually getting people in the community skilled up in the science of their local area so that they can advocate for that, then it can lead to (bigger) things.”

Back in Ceduna, nurse and counsellor Cholodniuk has been collecting photos and information about First Nations scientists for the annual Science Fair. The display is growing year on year. 

“There’s a lot of pride in that and a lot of hope too, for kids,” she says.

“Once a year is really lovely because you get to capture all the families and all the people around. But it would be great if we could have, maybe a STEM centre here.”

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