The inaugural Portland STEAM Fair 2023

Building with large windows lit up at night.

What a remarkable weekend it was! Inspiring NSW thoroughly enjoyed the inaugural STEAM Fair 2023 in Portland on November 11 and 12. The Foundations Portland heritage precinct was abuzz with activity, featuring everything from a school programs to a public Expo within the impressive 1407 sq m heritage structure, The Powerhouse. Stalls, talks, tours, exhibitions, demonstrations, performances, walks, and workshops filled the whole precinct with excitement!

Kudos to the STEAMWorks team for meticulously curating an outstanding program that encompassed a diverse range of environmental projects, university outreach initiatives, passionate science communicators, technology societies, arts and community groups, alongside local businesses. The unifying theme among participants was the shared objective of nurturing curiosity and fostering engagement with science, technology, engineering, mathematics, and medicine, enhanced by artistic elements—STEAM!

Inspiring NSW actively participated in the Expo to let the local community know more about National Science Week and our Regional Science Hub network. We support the Lithgow Valley Art & Science Hub –  STEAMWorks, the organisers of the STEAM Fair. Their STEM engagement programs for local schools, and school holiday workshops, aim to provide young people with opportunities for educational experiences, events, and career paths not widely available in regional NSW. With Regional Development Australia Central West funding, they were able to make their dream of a STEAM Fair for the whole community finally come to life.

The Orange Carbonne Cowra Science Hub, hosted at the Corridor Project, shared space with the Inspiring NSW stall. Artistic director Phoebe Cowdery explained their distinctive fusion of art and science workshops in the Central West, along with plans for the signature program ERTHWRX24 in 2024.

The Corridor Project frequently collaborates with the esteemed fungi expert Dr Jordan Baily, the head of the Plant Pathology & Mycology Herbarium for the NSW Department of Primary Industries collections in nearby Orange. Jordan was engaged in answering numerous questions about her specimens of mushrooms, fungi, and pathogens. Her sherbet-making demonstration, employing household ingredients such as citric acid, icing sugar, and jelly crystals, proved to be very popular!

To attract passing kids to the Inspiring NSW stall we experimented with draw bots. It worked well to engage younger children, and once they worked out how they were made, they tinkered with the bots, making adjustments and creating incredible patterns. Hours of fun, and many parents now have the instructions!

In The Boilerhouse, adjacent to The Powerhouse, Dr Mark Temple from the Western Sydney University’s School of Science, had an amazing industrial space for his performance ‘Connections Between Science and Music, the Sounds of Biology.’ His multimedia presentation of science audio, with drums and synthesizers, took science data in a unique direction. Locals were completely intrigued when he put electrodes on cuttings of local plants, interpreting their electrical signals and converting them to music, sparking numerous questions about this unique combination of science and music.

NSW universities were well-represented, with energetic outreach teams eager to inform young people about study and research opportunities in STEM. The Western Sydney University Maldhan Ngurr Ngurra Lithgow Transformation Hub stall highlighted their crucial work in engaging locals in lifelong learning, attracting interest in their thermal camera program, Heat Detective, the Great Southern Bioblitz 2023 – Lithgow Region, and the 1 Million Turtles Community Conservation Program based at WSU. The SciX@UNSW team hosted a stall with interactive displays for kids, with numerous families inquiring about STEM careers. Macquarie University’s representation included enthusiastic students from the National Indigenous Science Experience Program, sharing insights about further study opportunities in STEM, especially for those from regional areas.

The exhibition of ‘old’ technology included the Penrith Museum of Printing, offering a live printing press demonstration, and the Australian Computer Museum Society showcasing their remarkable collection of vintage computers, including the opportunity to play Pac-Man on a vintage Atari. They provided a fascinating contrast to the ‘new’ technology offered by edgedVR, who provided a VR goggle experience for many first timers.

For locals interested in their immediate environment, stalls by East Coast Wildflowers, Lithgow & District Community Nursery, Lithgow Environment Group, the Botanic Gardens of Sydney (Blue Mountains Botanic Garden Mount Tomah), and Central Tablelands – Local Land Services provided information and inspiration to get involved in local projects, including the purple copper butterfly citizen science project.

STEAM encompasses arts (A), and the arts were well represented with many workshops by local arts groups over the weekend, and stalls from two local arts organisations –  Arts OutWest featuring their Kew-Y-Ahn Aboriginal Gallery and the Kandos School of Cultural Adaptation. At the Kew-Y-Ahn Aboriginal Gallery stall, local artist and curator Aleshia Lonsdale had a popular display of amazing hand carved First Nations tools and weapons for the kids to touch, and a beautiful selection of artwork available at the Kew-Y-Ahn Aboriginal Gallery in nearby Little Hartley.

The permanent stage in The Powerhouse featured talks on various topics, including the nearby Jenolan Caves, steam distillation techniques at a local lavender farm, and edible weeds with Diego Bonetto. There were walking tours of local birdlife, and an opportunity to explore the aquatic life in the nearby Millpond or try fly-fishing there.

In a dedicated room to the side of the main Powerhouse hall, a stunning wildflower display of local springtime flowering specimens from the Seven Valleys region, created by local botanist sand naturalists Chris Jonkers and Julie Favell, delighted everyone.

The community responded positively to the work of the remarkable Kanimbla Wombats, a volunteer-based mange treatment and education program in Central West NSW. Kanimbla Wombats co-founder Melinda Kerr was present to answer any questions about how to help with this sometimes-fatal disease.

The STEAM Fair was inaugurated with an opening night celebration featuring a specially commissioned sculptural artwork by Tully Arnot that beautifully represented the locally endangered purple copper butterfly. Welcoming speeches by The Foundation’s Martin O’Connell and Rich Evans were followed by a presentation by supervisor Natural Areas & Arboriculture Blue Mountains Botanic Garden, Mount Tomah, Ian Allan, on how this team protected the Wollemi Pines during the 2019-20 Black Summer bushfires.

On Sunday morning, we were fortunate to join a tour of the wider Foundations site, with the Chief Reactivation Officer, Rich Evans, providing commentary on the rich heritage that remains on the site of the Portland Cement Works that closed in 1989. On land originally occupied by the Wiradjuri people, the Commonwealth Portland Cement Company opened in 1902 in an area already being used to mine lime for construction. Spread over the 86-hectare site are many remnants of its industrial heritage, including smaller buildings now used for artists in residence and workshops, the Annexe built for the Lithgow Small Arms factory now an Art GAllery and Cafe, old limestone and shale quarries now filled with water for fishing and swimming, and numerous legacies of the past, including sculptural outdoor kilns, and even a blacksmith forge.

And last, but not least, the STEAM engines! Local enthusiasts brought in two heritage steam engines, once used to run farm machinery, and kept them running all day and into the evening, stoking up the engine with timber from local sources, to boil water and run party lights. It was a fitting demonstration of the hard physical work, as well as the large amount of fuel needed, for these relics of past technology.

The engines provided a wonderful backdrop to the STEAM theme, with a rhythmic chugging of the engine and hissing of steam throughout the weekend.

Congratulations to everyone involved in this wonderful event that so successfully celebrated and championed STEAM in a regional community.

Feature image: The Foundations Powerhouse building lit up at night.