The Wanless family has a long and cherished history with Questacon, stemming from Jenny Wanless, whose first experience with Questacon was driving her son, Ian, to Questacon’s original location at Ainslie Public School in 1980.
From that day, Jenny knew she wanted to be a part of Questacon, as her daughter Erica explains. “She went on the excursion and just loved it so much. She wanted to be a part of it, so she started volunteering.” That volunteering turned into a life-long commitment with Jenny serving 38 years as a volunteer Explainer, driven by her passion for science education and a strong community of fellow volunteers. Jenny went on to become an integral part of the Questacon family, and one of the longest-serving volunteers.
For Erica and her brothers, Ian and David, Questacon was simply an extension of the family, with all 3 siblings also going on to become volunteer Explainers. Erica recalls attending volunteer training at the Australian National University (ANU). “Questacon started running evening lectures at the ANU to train volunteers. The volunteers were mostly high school and university students, but scientifically trained people like my mum and also retired scientists would go to learn to be volunteers. Then, later, each of us kids would go through as well and become volunteers.”
Reflecting on the role Questacon has played in her and her brothers’ lives, Erica says, “We all have science degrees and STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) careers – all influenced by volunteering at Questacon.” Erica goes on to say that her and Ian’s careers in STEM education in particular, may not have happened without that commitment to pass on the “baton of enthusiasm” that Questacon had bestowed on them.
Erica is a Professor of Chemistry and Head of the Department of Chemistry at Newcastle University and Ian is a Professor of Mathematics at Monash University.
Given the role of Questacon in the Wanless family’s lives, it only made sense to them to give something back. This led to the family’s generous donation to ensure that Questacon continues to enrich people’s lives – specifically through supporting the volunteers and providing fundamental science exhibits. These two things were Jenny’s passion.
The Jenny Wanless Family Endowment Fund has now been established with its mission:
“To perpetuate the legacy of Jenny Wanless OAM who was a dedicated explainer at Questacon over its first four decades. By supporting Questacon volunteers, it will honour Jenny’s fascination for the natural world and passion for science communication”.
Erica has already seen the effects of the donation through the new Curiosity Rover – a mobile unit that allows Questacon’s Volunteer Explainers to take props and equipment throughout the centre. “The Curiosity Rover was something material that could be done straight away with the donated funds.” The idea for the rover grew out of Curiosity Corner (in Questacon’s Fundamental gallery) which is a dedicated space for Volunteer Explainers to demonstrate how science influences the everyday lives of visitors using readily accessible materials found at home.
As for the importance of supporting volunteers at Questacon, Erica explains that “What’s important is that the volunteering keeps going and to make sure these key people are valued on an ongoing basis. This donation seemed like a good way to positively influence this through training of the volunteers.”
Questacon and the Wanless family now meet annually to decide on projects the money can support, with input from the volunteers. The most recent meeting agreed there would be training and support for volunteers to engage people with disabilities as well as refreshing the equipment on the Curiosity Rover.
Questacon will continue to enhance the volunteers’ science communication skills as part of its core business.
Reflecting on the past 35 years and Questacon’s legacy on the family, Erica says “For us, Questacon is much older than 35 years. 35 years on its current site is no small feat, but our relationship goes beyond that back to the very first year of operation. There’s a genuine incredible friendship and passion for this place evident in its volunteers.”
“Mum kept volunteering for as long as she could until her health declined about 5 years ago – she’s about to turn 90 next year. We’re so pleased to be able to make this donation while mum is still around to enjoy it because Questacon is such a valuable long-term memory for her.”