Municipal Institute Of LearningMILE - Municipal Institute Of Learning
Making the Sciences matter… a vision of a Science Commons

I am still amazed at how awe-struck my two daughters were as they engaged, wide-eyed with the various exhibits at the KZN Science Centre at Gateway. Can you remember the first time you encountered the magic of science as a child; captivated by a simple experiment by your teacher in the classroom, or perhaps your own first visit to the museum? A life changing moment no doubt; as it was for Professor Phillip Tobias who visited the Durban Natural science museum as a child and was immediately enticed into the world of the sciences… and the rest, as they say is history!
So what is the responsibility of local government to ensuring that we inspire our young citizens into this world? What combination of facilities and infrastructure will be required to hold their attention? What is the role of the private sector ? What is the role of national government in terms of providing an enabling environment and framework? Can the sciences stimulate the local tourism economy? These were all questions that eThekwini  managers grappled with at the latest Management Seminar held at the Jewish Club on the morning of May 16th, 2013, and moderated by Jacquie Subban, Head of the Policy and Information Unit in the Office of the City Manager.
After a light breakfast, Allison Ruiters, Director of eThekwini’s Natural Science Museum set the scene for the morning by tracing the history of the Natural Science Museum. She highlighted their two focus areas of collections and research and public engagement making the case for ensuring that museums have optimal spaces where collections are placed at the centre of what is being done.

This input was followed by an impressive overview from Ken Froise from City Architects who provided an architectural perspective on the vision for a science and technology park.

Dr. Beverley Damonse from the  National Research Foundation, then shared her thoughts on the national vision and was visibly excited by the perfect alignment between the national thinking and the plans emerging in Durban. 

She reflected on SA’s advances in science through the utilisation of its home-grown talent: the  ownership of and leadership on the array telescope in a town where the children did not have access to a laboratory; the innovation of a  single dose therapy for malaria that came out of SA’s very science community; the University  of Stellenbosch producing an innovative and affordable nano tea bag that purifies water enhancing the lives of impoverished communities and the recent Paleo-Sciences exhibition launched at WITS University.
She argued that the interplay between research, innovation and public engagement through paleo-tourism and edutainment as envisaged in eThekwini could bring all three spheres of government to working much closer together. She did observe however that there was still some work to be done in creating the right psyche amongst citizens to engage more in the field of science.

What was most illuminating for me, was her insights into the power that eThekwini has to create a network of science infrastructure (joining the proposed museum complex, the university complexes, Moses Mabhida stadium, Ushaka, etc)  to encourage science tourism.

David Kramer from the NGO  Sci-Bono, unpacked the notion of the science centre as institutions that facilitate informal, non-formal and formal learning. He shared some sobering statistics noting that the worrying quality of teaching in SA where 80% of grade 11 learners aren’t able to do basic arithmetic. He spoke about the operations of Sci-Bono which is an exciting initiative that oversees a spectrum of programmes from school support and teacher training programmes to their science centre and a career centre. David applauded the City on their vision and urged officials involved in this exciting project to  take risks, encouraging them to even make mistakes but own up to them and move forward.

Professor Michelle Hamer  from the  SA Bio Diversity Institute spoke about a recent assessment of the collections in the natural science museums across the country and the range of challenges that these collections face. The greatest challenge identified was research capacity with only 23 researchers across ten sites nationally. Recommendations were developed in response to the assessment; however the value of the collections needed to be more strongly motivated to the decision-makers. What was important, she noted was to change the mind-sets of scientists so that they move beyond narrow parochial research needs towards teamwork that focussed on publicly accessible, citizen-focussed research that serves the broader society.

In the vibrant discussion that ensued after the presentations, some of  the following key ideas that were raised:

• the need to harness partnerships from all sectors as a centre of convergence

• the importance of considering public transport and in particular school busses into the space

• thinking about what a smart city means and how to integrate technology into the project
• the opportunity of developing a next generation green building into the project in terms of its demonstration value.

There was broad consensus that there was an urgent need to gain momentum to make this integrated museum / science centre project happen, given that energy and funds have been invested in designing a concept. Mr Guy Redman, Head of Department and champion of the project summed up by urging all to set aside the notions of unfunded mandates and make the dream a reality.

To view or download the presentations from this event Click here.


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