9 000 inquisitive minds explore Science Centre
Few would say no to a journey of discovery that is not only education but also a great stress reliever. It should come as no surprise then, that the North-West University's (NWU's) Science Centre on the Potchefstroom Campus has seen a spike in visitors in the past year.
School visits where learners are taken on a journey of discovery through the centre have become more and more popular, says Prof Jan Smit, centre manager. Almost 9 000 people visited the centre last year, a conservative estimate as up to 20% of the visitors do not sign the visitor's book.
Jan says the activities in the centre cover a wide range of natural science topics that also tie in with other disciplines such as psychology, child development, pharmacy and educational sciences.
Enticing young and old
They go to a lot of trouble to instil a love for science in young people. During the annual National Science Week in August, many schools visit the centre and science demonstrations are performed in Promosa and Ikageng's community halls. The centre has even done a demonstration in the Ikageng Mall – which the community thoroughly enjoyed.
“Every year we do demonstrations at several old age homes in the community. The elderly tend to be very appreciative audiences.”
Other special events are hosted during the first-year welcoming and open days in May. The centre is also available upon request on Saturdays for special visits by, for instance, learners’ councils.
“In the past couple of years we have had seven children's parties at the centre. The actual party is held in the garden, and afterwards the children and their parents visit the centre. So the children are exposed to science from a very young age.”
From Americans to robots are dropping by
Jan says they have received visitors from all over the world – from America, Britain, Sweden, India, Australia, Kenya and Botswana, as well as visits from international students on the Potchefstroom Campus.
He has an amusing anecdote about the time the Department of Science and Technology loaned them a life-size robot. The robot could speak through a microphone and the audience asked all sorts of scientific questions. A scientist, who had hidden somewhere in the room, answered the questions into the microphone, making it sound like the answers were coming from the very smart robot. “This lured many people back for another visit to the centre.”
According to Jan, the highlight of the centre's 11-year existence was the opening of National Science Week in 2008. On that day, approximately 3 400 people visited the centre, which entertained the former Minister of Science and Technology, mayors of the surrounding towns, rectors and community dignitaries.
An excellent stress reliever
Jan invited university staff to visit the centre. “It is an excellent way to get rid of stress during the lunch hour.”
Staff of the other NWU campuses who have to visit Potchefstroom for things like meetings should also swing by the Science Centre before they return home, he suggested.
Science Centre manager Prof Jan Smit plans, designs and builds the experiments himself.
When it comes to experiments that require special materials, he calls in the assistance of instrument makers.
He has a talent for understanding what his audience wants, too.
“We are not keen on replacing old experiments. Sometimes visitors tell others of an experiment in the centre; if it isn't there anymore, they have travelled here for nothing. Introducing new experiments also takes some planning, because visitors have different tastes.”
It takes about 16 hours to do all the experiments, but visitors usually reach saturation point after an hour and prefer to return at a later stage to continue their journey of discovery.
“It is important to first determine visitors' needs, and then guide them or let them discover things for themselves. It's interesting that older visitors usually prefer to be shown around by somebody from the centre, while younger visitors want to experiment and discover new things themselves.”