Taking science to the regions

Inspiring Australia may be the national framework for community engagement with STEM – but it’s the local action that counts! Colleagues from 18 regions representing Inspiring Australia’s NSW Regional Science Hubs recently gathered in Sydney to share ideas and help pave the way forward for this dynamic, grass roots network.

Joined by members of Inspiring Australia’s national team and staff from the Office of the NSW Chief Scientist & Engineer, around 40 participants attended the third NSW Leadership Forum established to investigate the Regional Science Hubs network’s impact and identify future opportunities.

With a 50/50 split between old hands and new comers, the Forum brought an incredibly broad array of talent and skills together to discuss what works, what we’d like to do more of and where this community-led science outreach and engagement initiative could go in the future.

With all kinds of creative change makers present, many ideas were shared about the best way to connect scientists to the broader community and bridge the gap between science and society.

Sparking wonder and curiosity

From large scale festivals to mark National Science Week to the delivery of year-round programs, the Science Hubs deliver an impressive array of initiatives. They foster collaboration across the entire community and bring together organisations with a shared passion to provide community access to science activities, events and ideas at a grassroots level. In this way, Science Hubs enable Inspiring Australia to achieve more impact by connecting funded science outreach program activity to the broader community.

Science Hub members represent extraordinary talent and huge diversity as they create programs within their own communities that respond to local conditions. While each Science Hub is different, commmon attributes amongst members include a passion for lifelong learning, a commitment to building sustainable partnerships and acknowledging everyone’s contributions and delivering high quality events that draw people in and explore topics that community members are interested in.

Each year, Science Hubs deliver hundreds of imaginative and entertaining events  across the state that spark curiosity and wonder about the world around us – both now and into the future. Dozens of local networks inspire communities to discover how science and technology can help us overcome all kinds of challenges.

Changing culture

The Forum gave Science Hub members the chance to present their success stories and highlights, their learnings and their challenges – with the group invited to brainstorm solutions. New Science Hub partners were able to see how other regions worked and seek feedback on their preliminary ideas and vision.

Over two days, participants shared diverse examples of how local Science Hubs are working collaboratively, with organisations large and small, to connect science and technology research to bigger audiences. By taking scientists out of labs and into the community, Science Hubs are bringing science and technology into mainstream culture. This new access to science can have a profound impact in communities grappling with an increasingly complex world.

But it isn’t always easy. Participants in this volunteer-led network also discussed how they maintain interest and momentum, federate work and avoid burnout. Many ideas were exchanged about how to keep others engaged and what to do if enthusiasm begins to wane.

Who’s involved?

Science Hubs are often led by local community groups, the arts and cultural sector or the local council, in particular the library or museum. New to the network are large performance and sporting venues and festivals that come with well-established audiences.

Such regional collaborations are hugely valuable in helping connect scientists with those who may not have  the opportunity to consider the role of science in their lives.

Developing expertise

An important aspect of the NSW Regional Science Hubs Leadership Forum was to provide the network with professional development. With this in mind we brought in a number of experts to share information that will help Science Hubs develop successful local programs.

Guest presenters included:

  • Australian Museum’s Indigenous Education Project Officer, Renee Cawthorne, who spoke about the National Indigenous Science Experience, a STEM education initiative developed with Elders to encourage Indigenous youth to complete school. NISEP provides training to Indigenous secondary school students from rural and regional low SES communities to be leaders – at school, community and university STEM events.
  • Science communicator Sarah Klistorner, who discussed opportunities for Science Hubs to connect with scientists, funds and projects presented by the NSW Office of Environment and Heritage.
  • NRMA’s Venera Owens and Siobhan Spoljaric, who shared a case study of how the organisation has transformed itself and is now adopting a new measurement framework and shared value approach to its scommunity investment.
  • Media and communications expert Kristen Barnes, who shared top tips on how to be savvy in social media and engage millennials.
  • Journalist and science writer Marcus Strom, who explained how to pitch stories to journalists in today’s changing media landscape
  • UNSW Centre for Ideas Director, Ann Mossop, who shared her experiences of developing high-profile public programs for the Seymour Centre, Sydney Writers Festival, Sydney Opera House and UNSW.
  • Connections co-founder and AMMRF Business Development Manager, Dr Jenny Whiting, who discussed how she is working with Indigenous communities on a unique art based STEM education project.

Friday’s session included a surprise visit from Dr Karl, who generously shared his take on the top eight game changing science and technologies in fifteen minutes.

What’s our impact?

Measuring the impact of this grass roots community network is complex. What we know is that regional communities value Inspiring Australia’s support to Science Hub. They appreciate the way this initiative allows local leaders to decide what kinds of scientists and science themed events they will present in their own communities.

All kinds of organisations have become involved, and the fact that the network continues to grow five years after it began is testament to its success.

However, participants agree that finding a credible way to prove the positive impact Science Hubs are having in regional communities is necessary in order to sustain the network over the longer term. How we do this is a work in progress. Watch this space!

Inspiring Australia (NSW) thanks the hundreds of community partners who take the lead in their Science Hub and work with others to introduce science into popular places where people go. Connect with NSW Science Hubs.