ISCSMD 2016: A Global Platform for Reflection, Transformation, and Mainstreaming the SDGs in Science Centres and Science Museums

By Dr. Elizabeth Rasekoala, President, African Gong

During the recent ECSITE Annual Conference in Graz, Austria, I did allude in my keynote presentation that the sector should be wary of falling into the self-congratulation trap of using this landmark global platform of the International Science Center and Science Museum Day (ISCSMD) as simply yet another opportunity to “tell the world how wonderful science centres and science museums are.” I advocated that it should rather utilize this seminal opportunity to engage in a reflective, critical analysis of its field to undertake a listening and engagement exercise, and to take stock of the milestones reached and the many more to be achieved. In short, it should not engage in “business as usual.”

The United Nations’ (UN’s) post-2015 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) Framework has elucidated the full complexity of the range, breadth, and depth of the global development challenges of the 21st century, much more so than the preceding Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which were limited and narrow in their scope and application. This comprehensive SDGs framework thus illustrates that the overwhelming framing of science communication and science and society discourses, practices, and mechanisms has not served societies and communities well. Furthermore, if science communication is to be both salient and credible for a wide range of audiences and meet the needs of the diverse publics, there is a need for new ways of approaching the craft and delivery mechanisms, in order to maximize impact and enhance development gains.

The myriad and intractable development challenges to which science communication should contribute to highlighting and promoting the pivotal role of science, through developing innovations and solutions for solving challenges in society, are profound, and nowhere more so than on the African continent. However, the ubiquitous look, design, content, layouts, exhibits, materials, activities, narratives, etc. of science centres and science museums across the globe is a cause for concern and raises profound questions about the lack of creativity and innovation in the field itself. When science centres and museums in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and across the global south, look and feel exactly the same as those in the global north, then we have a real problem of the lack of diversity, socio-cultural inclusion, language diversity, localized contexts, and indigenous knowledge. Without these attributes, it is not possible to truly engage the interests, participation, and sense of ownership of communities and societies in the global south, in science centres and science museums.

In African Gong, we are working in partnership with a range of stakeholders to achieve strategic developments in science communication on the African continent on these key challenging platforms:

  • Policy Development: Few African governments have Science, Technology and Innovation (STI) policies in place, and of those that do, hardly any have Science Communication as a key pillar or strand in their STI policies. This has challenging implications as to how we grow the science centre and science museum sector on the African continent;
  • Practice and Program Development: How do we develop innovative, empowering, and transformative African-centric science centres and science museums, in place of the Euro-centric ones which currently dominate and which simply further alienate African citizens, who largely see it as foreign, elitist, and intimidating from science?
  • Capacity Development: How do we grow the human capital needed for the delivery of engaging, stimulating, and sustainable science centres and science museums on the African continent?

Above all else, we wish to realize science centres and science museums which facilitate and enable the strategic positioning of science and its applications at the heart of the African sustainable development framework, hence the pivotal focus on the SDGs in this regard.

We very much welcome the focus on the SDGs for the ISCSMD and I would like to suggest the following kinds of activities to science centres and science museums, in line with this focus:

The SDG Goal 2, which aims to end hunger, is at least as concerned with politics and economics as it is with climate change and farm yields. I would like to suggest that instead of the usual narrow focus on the science of genetically-modified foods and the polarized debates which it generates, that on November 10, some science centers could actually engage in a multidisciplinary and co-generated activity involving natural and social scientists, economists, and philosophers to explore the complex nature of the inter-linkages between topics like agricultural subsidies, trade tariffs, climate change impacts, small-holder farmers versus large commercial farms, land tenure/ownership, farm yields and soil quality, post-harvest loss, food prices, food waste, agro-processing and the agricultural value chain, and how all these interlinked issues critically impact on the delivery of Goal 2. This would make for a very multi-stakeholder, multi-level, inclusive, and engaging activity!

Another suggestion would be to take on Goal 5, which is focused on gender equality. The suggestion here is that you plan over a two-week period prior to November 10, to involve visitors to your science centre/museum in an interactive exercise of gender-auditing your centre/museum: its exhibits, activities, layout, facilities, programs, narratives, etc. with fun tools such as ‘sticky dots’ (red or pink for female bias; blue or purple for male bias; and green for gender-balance). Give equal amounts of the three different color sticker dots to all the visitors coming to your centre for a period of two weeks (and also undertake daily gender monitoring of these visitors). Then, have them place these dots based on their assessments as to gender bias or otherwise, on wall mounted boards across the centre (different boards for different exhibits, activities, etc.). On November 10, share these findings with your visitors and invited gender experts and involve them in discussions, debates, and interactive activities which will enable your centre to address these issues more effectively, sustainably, and inclusively. You will be surprised at the findings and also at the excellent and creative ideas that you will get from your visitors!

I wish us all an uplifting, dynamic, and insightful ISCSMD 2016 on November 10, and hope that it will engender the sustainable transformation of the sector and field.

SAASTEC showcases the SDGs

by Derek Fish

The Southern African Association of Science and Technology Centres (SAASTEC) represents science and technology centers mostly below the equator in Africa. Formed in 1996, it holds an annual conference which will be at Unizulu Science Centre in Richards Bay, South Africa, November 7–10 this year coinciding with the host’s 30th birthday celebrations. There are also plans underway to provide a preconference training workshop to assist southern African countries keen to start science centers.

Science centers in Africa are still very undeveloped despite many efforts in the region—especially since the 2011 Science Centre World Congress was hosted in Cape Town, South Africa. SAASTEC has often struggled to get members to participate in international activities when they are struggling just to keep afloat.

SO – the theme for this year’s SAASTEC Conference is ISCSMD and the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), and delegates have been asked to describe how their centers or programs address one or more of the SDGs in their presentations. During the conference, about 50 delegates will showcase their response to the SDGs which are so crucial for development in Africa. These presentations will be compiled, providing a comprehensive look at how science centers in southern Africa are addressing the SDGs.

Exciting programmes are planned for Thursday, November 10, the last day of the conferenceand ISCSMD. A number of international delegates will participate at the conference (more are welcome – see below!) and virtual contact will be made with science centers worldwide during the day, perhaps as follows:

  • Morning – science centers to the east (NCSM and ASPAC)
  • Midday – science centers to the north (NAMES and ECSITE)
  • Afternoon – science centers to the west (ASTC and REDPOP)
  • SAASTEC welcomes delegates to this extremely affordable conference (registration fee is under USD 150!!) , and full details can be found at . In addition if you would like to link with our conference on ISCSMD, please contact Derek Fish on Hope to see you there!

ASTC and UNAI Launch ISCSMD Contest

Within the framework of the International Science Center and Science Museum Day, the Association of Science-Technology Centers (ASTC) is collaborating with the United Nations Academic Impact (UNAI) and the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) to hold a contest open to college and university students from Africa. Entrants are invited to submit a 500-800 word statement, in English, addressing how attaining one United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) could be facilitated by scientific inquiry and research and suggesting practical ways of doing so.

This is an opportunity to share thoughts on how to better document the SDGs and to facilitate communication and education about their objectives so that more global citizens can be mobilized for their successful achievement.

Submission deadline: June 30, 2016

Eligibility and selection process: The contest is open to students who are, on June 30, 2016, enrolled in a course of study at a college or university and who are nationals of a Member State of the African Union. The entry should be accompanied by a signed statement of a responsible official at the educational institution confirming the entrant’s status as an enrolled student and eligibility by nationality.

Ten finalists will be selected to present and further discuss their submission with the judges panel in an online seminar during the last week of July 2016. Participation in this seminar is required to be considered for the prize.

One winner will be invited to participate in the celebration of International Science Center and Science Museum Day at UNESCO Headquarters in Paris, France, on November 10, 2016. Award: The winner will receive an official invitation letter from UNESCO. Costs for travel and a subsistence allowance to attend the event will be covered by UNESCO (economy airfare, two hotel nights, plus food and transportation). If the winner cannot travel to Paris for International Science Center and Science Museum Day on November 10, no travel/cash prize will be awarded.

How to Enter: Email the completed entry form to Walter Staveloz,, by June 30, 2016.

International Science Center and Science Museum Day 2016

On November 10, 2016, on the occasion of the World Science Day for Peace and Development and in partnership with the United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) and the International Council of Museums, science centers, science museums, and their networks worldwide will organize the first International Science Center and Science Museum Day (ISCSMD). On that day, science centers and science museums are invited (and encouraged!) to offer activities based on one (or more!) of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) declared by the United Nations (UN). Building upon that UNESCO theme of “Science for Peace and Development,” our goal is to create new ways for our institutions to proactively address global sustainability while reaching increasingly diverse audiences. ISCSMD aims to demonstrate the engagement and impact of the science center and science museum field and to present them at the Science Center World Summit in Tokyo in November 2017.

International Science Center and Science Museum Day flyer (PDF)

As we start to mobilize for ISCSMD, we invite individual science centers and science museums to begin an online dialogue about the event. Help us bring the conversation alive by submitting a blog post and letting all of us know what is working (or what you’d like to improve) in your center relative to the UN Sustainable Development Goals. How can you start? Identify one goal (or more!) linked to an exhibition or a program that you currently offer or plan to undertake. Share your successes, challenges, and ideas for change, either that you’ve already made or hope to make. Your posts—and the discussions that result—will not only inspire comments from the field, but will be used to set the stage for the aforementioned expert-led mini-conference. Plus, when the official ISCSMD website is launched in June, your entries will help make it come alive.

Our first post below describes how Telus Spark (Calgary, Alberta, Canada) seeks to be a place where rich conversations around sustainability can happen through their Energy Sustainability Project—a pilot exhibit designed test to their visitors’ interest in these topics.

Pilot testing UN Sustainable Development Goals in a science center

By Caroline Bartel and Jennifer Martin

TELUS Spark is located in Calgary, Alberta, Canada, a city known for its cowboy heritage and fossil fuel economy. We opened our new facility in 2011, and moved out of our 1967 planetarium-turned-science-center. During these past few years, with the ups and downs of the economy and radical changes in political direction, many Albertans are closely examining the prospects for our carbon-based economy and are struggling to link these to a positive future for their families. It is not easy to see good indicators of stability when tens of thousands of people have been laid off work in the past year.

TELUS Spark strives to be a role model and a force for innovation that drives positive change. For the past six months, we have been experimenting with creating opportunities for public engagement on the often competing issues of energy, economy, climate, and the environment. We seek to be a place where rich conversations around sustainability can happen through our Energy Sustainability Project. Creating an opportunity for visitors to become aware of the United Nations’ 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) is a natural fit with our work, but a potentially challenging and complex topic to address.

We at TELUS Spark believe that the positive transition to a sustainable energy system is founded on increasing the awareness, understanding, and commitment of individuals to integrate sustainability principles into the way they live, work, and grow the economy. What would happen if we chose to focus some attention on the UN SDGs? Would people be interested? Would they even care? We have a tradition of fast, inexpensive pilot testing of concepts—think Sharpie markers and cardboard graphics (really!)—so we quickly got to work.

TELUSPilotThe UN has already made the SDGs graphics visually attractive and easy to use. The pilot was very simple; a brief summary paragraph about the UN’s Sustainable Development initiative, enlarged graphics of each of the goals, and a “call to action” instruction. The numbers on each goal were masked. We mounted each goal on foam core and attached a Velcro strip to the back. The instructions were adjusted to see what impact they might have: visitors were asked to rearrange the goals from highest to lowest priority, or from most easily to least easily attained. Despite the display being small and having little surrounding context to build meaning, the goals were constantly rearranged for the duration of the display. Given that this was one of several rapid pilot tests in our Energy Sustainability program, we did not do significant evaluation. We were looking for basic attractors and responses to a wide variety of subject matter.

From our collected observations and feedback, we learned that the Sustainable Development Goals are actually pretty hard for our visitors to understand. We also learned that it is challenging for visitors to find personal relevance when faced with this information, let alone form an opinion. From abstract, yet clear and meaningful goals, it is difficult for our visitors to imagine what actions could lead to positive change. As we pursue this further, we will need to go from mere awareness of the SDGs to concrete examples of projects that address one or more of the 17 goals.

As we go forward with our Energy Sustainability program, we are addressing coal-fired electricity, renewable technology, and technology innovation in the Alberta Oil Sands to reduce CO2 emissions. There is too much content to cover, but perhaps the SDGs will help us frame the priorities. We wonder if first taking a collaborative approach to SDG awareness might be beneficial. What would we learn if we all presented a similar challenge, like “put these goals in the order from highest to lowest priority”, and shared our audiences’ responses across the world? What is important in our community will likely be very different from yours.

There are many stakeholders in our energy system and many forces that are beyond our control. As new technologies become available, people will have to make choices about which ones they will adopt and how they will use them. Science centers are good at raising awareness of the science behind technology. They can also allow for reflection on the broader consequences of the direction in which humanity is moving, and consideration of the global impacts of our choices. By doing so, we ultimately further serve as cultural institutions by being places where shared social constructs and understandings can be encountered and deliberated.