Click below to listen to our interview with Isabelle Kingsley, Science Education Officer at the Powerhouse Museum and Manager of the 2015 Sydney Science Festival:

Q: You’ve got lots of science communicating experience. You started off teaching science in the classroom, but don’t anymore. What were some of the influences that led you to move on?

A: When I came out of university I went straight into teaching secondary science, and I really, really enjoyed it, but I struggled in the classroom. I thought ‘I’d rather work in the informal education sector than the formal education sector.

I just thought that it would be a little bit easier for me to connect with kids in a more informal setting, so I started working in a museum that was back in Canada, where I’m from. And when I came to Australia I targeted the Powerhouse Museum because they do such great programs.

It’s just this thing in me. I love science, and I love working with youth. I just think that it’s so important to get young people involved and engaged in science. And that’s just what I love to do.

Q: What are some of the differences and similarities in teaching in a classroom versus at a museum in terms of engaging with the children, and the interactions?

A: There is quite a significant difference, I’d say. There are a lot of studies that look at how science is taught in the classroom, and how it’s a distant cousin to how science is actually practiced in the real world by real scientists.

And it’s a huge challenge for teachers to be able to show their students how science is actually practiced but also provide them with authentic science experiences.

One of the things that I think could really help teachers is to partner with informal learning organisations such as museums and science centres and stuff, because we are able to provide them with experiences or access to certain resources or scientists that is easier for us to get access to, and then we can pass that on to students and teachers.

For example we have the Mars Lab where we have real specimens. We have robots that have been purpose built to explore the Martian surface that has been created. These kinds of things are not resources that schools have.

We have access to scientists all over Australia and all over the world. We’ve got access to NASA scientists that maybe teachers don’t necessarily have access to. By working with us, we can provide them with things that might make their curriculum more authentic.

We’ve done some research here at the museum with some of the schools that we’ve worked with using some of the programs that we’ve built to create those authentic experiences in the classroom and allow that access between scientists and students.

The students really get a lot out of it. They feel like they understand the nature of science, and how science is actually practiced in the real world, and it changes their perception of what science is and what scientists do.

Q: What are some of the teaching resources or facilities that you’ve helped to create at the Powerhouse and at other museums?

A: Right now I’m involved in coordinating the Sydney Science Festival. That’s one of my major responsibilities in my role. Last year I was involved in the development of the Mars Lab and its education resources, which is what we used in the research I was just telling you about.

That was probably one of my favourite projects I’ve ever worked on. It was just so fantastic. The outcomes were really inspiring and really encouraging.

I also worked at the Australian Museum on an outreach science project called ‘Museum To You’, which is a mini-exhibition in a box. It can go out to schools, but it was intended for regional libraries, museums, science centres, and environmental centres in NSW. That was a really fun project that I worked on here as well.

Q: Could you briefly tell me about the Mars Lab project and what that was?

A: The Mars Lab is a working laboratory here at the museum. It’s a partnership between the Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, the University of New South Wales, and the University of Sydney.

We’ve recreated the surface of Mars at the museum over 140 metres squared and the University of New South Wales provided the expertise for the recreation of that surface. And then the University of Sydney have built experimental Mars rovers that students can use remotely from their classroom and basically students act like NASA scientists.

They have a research question that’s related to searching for habitable environments on Mars. They come up with their research question, plan a mission, do the mission from their classroom — so they drive our rovers on the surface of Mars from their classroom.

They collect data, analyse it and have to report back not only to peers, but also to scientists. The scientists will ask them questions on the evidence that they found and they have to defend their research. So it’s a really great project!

The comments that come back from the students are really interesting. They’re saying ‘I understand why scientists can spend all their life on one topic, because the more questions you answer, the more questions you have. It’s like a loop where you always have more questions and want to find out more.’

It’s a really encouraging project, and hopefully we can have more of that authenticity in school science.

Q: What age group is that targeted at?

A: It’s targeted at years 7 — 10, but we also have some programs that are for years 5 and 6. We’re looking at developing some stuff for the younger years as well.

Steamfest, Maitland

Museum of Applied Arts and Sciences, Photographer: Sotha Bourn


Q: What are some of the stranger, or more unusual events, you’ve been involved with in the past?

A: I don’t know if it’s strange, but it’s definitely the event that stood out the most. We’ve done it this year at the launch of the Science Festival, and we’ve done it in the past at the Ultimo Festival, it’s called ‘Speed Meet a Scientist’.

It’s a day when anyone can come into the museum and speak to a scientist. It’s set up kind of like speed dating. You have all the scientists at tables with chairs, and people just come up and choose which scientist they want to speak to.

People sit across from a scientist, have a bit of a chat about what they do, what their research is, and what their job is as a scientist in their everyday life.

At then after 10 minutes we rotate, so people get to talk to a whole bunch of scientists throughout the afternoon. It’s for all ages, so you get a lot of parents bringing in their children to chat to scientists.

It really brings down the barriers of people thinking that science is this ivory tower that most people can’t understand. But rather, that scientists are just regular people who have really cool jobs.

It’s my favourite event.

Q: What are some of the largest audiences you’ve had to communicate science to?

A: Just last week at MAASive Late. We had about 1600 people come through, and that was probably one of the largest science events that we’ve done. And that was accommodated because people were spread out throughout the museum.

We’ve had events before where Elise Andrews from IFLS and Chris Hadfield last year, but the capacity was smaller because it was all in the same room. We’ve gone from about 600-700 people to last week, about 1600.

Q: What other events have you been involved with in National Science Week this year?

A: I’m organising the Sydney Science Festival that has just over 100 events put on by about 38 presenting partners all over Sydney. We’ve got events on by the Australian Museum, The Indigenous Science Experience, Science in the Swamp, UTS, Sydney Uni, UNSW — they’re all putting on events as part of the festival.

So my job this year as festival manager has been to work with all of those partners and pull those events together with them as part of National Science Week.

Q: At what age do you think people are when they become enraptured in science and nature and inquiry?

A: There’s a lot of research out there about this, but I’d say when we’re really tiny. We’re so curious and inquisitive when we’re quite young, and it seems that that curiosity goes away after a while, so we’ve really got to nurture that creativity and that curiosity when we’re young, because that’s what science is all about.

A lot of people forget that creativity is a big part of science.  So getting little kids involved is really important. As young as possible I’d say.

Q: You must have seen many kids respond to science — do you think a curiosity for science is inherent in certain individuals to some extent? Or can interest be sparked in anybody depending on the right experience?

A: I think you can always spark it in everyone. A lot of the programs and initiatives that are out there really want to get people engaged and interested in science.

But we forget that not everyone wants to be a scientist. And that shouldn’t be the goal of programs, projects and initiatives.

For people to be interested in what science is, and not being afraid of it, for some people it’s a little overwhelming and scary, just to get them to welcome science is a big feat. We need a society that is scientifically literate.

And if we can achieve that by exposing people to science and getting them to understand how science works, how science is done, and the nature of science — that would be a huge and very good outcome. We need to get people to appreciate it and understand it.

Q: If you had a many million-dollar grant for education at the Powerhouse, what would you create to get people excited in science and tech? Would you hire a world-class communicator? An immersive first-hand experience?

A: I think it would definitely be immersive experiences. Some of the things that we’re doing already, like the Mars Lab, like NASA’s Mars student imaging program — where students get access to the satellites around Mars to take photos, to then analyse — getting students and anyone to do real science and to get them working with scientists.

Because access to scientists and the authenticity of experiences is really what we should be aiming for, from what I’ve read and from my personal experience, that seems to actually really work. If I got heaps of money to do something, that’s what I would focus on.