When ten young Questacon Explainers packed a removal truck with 25 interactive exhibits, piled into an ANU minibus and headed to Goulburn in July 1985, the Questacon Science Circus was born.
That first weekend trip drew 1,500 visitors.
The removal truck is no longer, now our colourful pantechnicon trailer filled with custom-built, portable exhibits has travelled the width and breadth of Australia.
More than three million Australians in 600 towns and 110 remote Indigenous communities have been inspired by the Science Circus. On the other side of the equation, over 500 Australian National University students began their careers in science communication on Science Circus tours. The program has achieved world-wide renown, inspiring similar programs in the UK, Canada, and South Africa.
Rolling into town, the Science Circus performers first visit local schools and demonstrate exciting experiments which could incorporate pop-rockets, bottle rockets and tea-bag rockets, while explaining the scientific principles involved.
Every student who attends receives a ticket to the travelling science centre later in the week which is open to the entire community. At these pop-up science centres, visitors get hands-on with science, spinning themselves silly, exploring angular momentum, testing their reflexes against a Formula 1 driver, and watching spectacular science shows.
A typical day in the life of a Science Circus presenter might look something like this:
Friday school presentation: Blow bubbles, explode rockets, test bridges, investigate friction.
Friday, 3pm: Interview with local radio station promoting tomorrow’s travelling science centre opening. Set-off rocket balloon mid-interview.
Friday, 4pm: Bump in at the science centre venue. Make sure you know where the back-up gaffer-tape is!
Saturday, 8am: Set-up and final preparations. Make sure truck is in a good spot so everyone can see it on their way inside.
Saturday, 10am: Doors open! Say hi to the students who recognise you from the school shows during the week. Hang out by catenary arch to collect falling blocks tumbling from the tub.
Saturday, 12pm: Your turn to perform a science show. Explain the fire triangle. Hold fire in your hands – safely, using science of course. The crowd goes wild!
Saturday, 4pm: Doors start to close. Help someone have one last throw at Speedball. Track down tennis balls which have rolled all over venue.
Saturday, 5pm: Pack everything back into the truck, employing finely-honed Tetris skills, prepare to get back on the road heading for the next venue.
Saturday, 6pm: Truck heads off. Team gathers to wave truck goodbye. You have considered sleeping in the truck at times, but decide a bed is probably more comfortable.
Saturday, 7pm: Begin planning for the next day.
The impact of the Science Circus can perhaps be summed up best by a student who attended a primary school show in 2019:
“That was so fun! Can we do that again?”
The Science Circus was officially launched by then Prime Minister, the Hon. Bob Hawke AC, GCL, and Minister for Science the Hon. Barry Jones, on 10 March 1987.
In 1988, the formal relationship between ANU, Questacon and Shell Australia was established to support the Science Circus and ANU continue to be a Founding Partner of the Questacon Science Circus.
In 2009, on the occasion of the Science Circus’ 21st the then Prime Minister, John Howard acknowledged its success in making science both accessible and engaging in regional and remote Australia.
"Since its inception the Science Circus has visited every corner of this wonderful country presenting lively and energetic science shows to schools and communities. The importance of this work can not be underestimated. Australia's future depends upon sound education and inspired innovation to nurture the new Howard Florey, Ralph Sarich, Graeme Clark and Barry Marshall of tomorrow.
The Questacon Science Circus has inspired many children across Australia who may not have otherwise had the opportunity. It also produces a growing cohort of science educators who continue to make a positive impact in their field.”
[Music plays and Image appears of a number 35 made from coloured shapes and text appears: Years of Science Inspiration 1988 to 2023]
[Image changes to show a woman in a black Questacon Science Circus shirt and blue hair talking to the camera]
Female 1: We’re in Launceston as the Questacon Science Circus travels around to regional and remote parts of Australia to deliver science to people who might not have an opportunity to get to Questacon themselves.
[Images move through to show the Questacon truck on the road, people walking and talking while wearing shirts that are black, orange or purple and then the truck again with the tailgate coming down]
What’s happening here today is we’ve unloaded our massive Science Circus truck and we have taken over the Launceston Conference Centre.
[Images move through footage of the truck with ramps and people in black, orange or purple shirts unloading equipment and then the group of people walking along a road between two buildings looking very happy]
[Image changes to a woman in a black Questacon Science Circus shirt in front of children and adults exploring equipment behind her]
Female 2: Today we have our fantastic pop up Science Centre. We’ve taken a little piece of Questacon on the road with us around Tasmania.
[Images move through to show children watching an adult throw a ball at a target enclosed in a net, a child being observed by an adult as they push down a plastic arch and then two children watching a woman in a purple shirt as she demonstrates a piece of equipment]
Inside we have about 30 hands on exhibits and some amazing science shows. We have a huge crowd of people from the community that have come on down today to learn a little bit about the science of the world around them.
[Images move through to show the woman in the black shirt talking to camera, a shot of a large concrete area between buildings with lots of families gathering in groups, the camera moves along towards a doorway and then shows a woman in a purple shirt making large bubbles near a table dressed in a yellow tablecloth]
[Image changes to show the woman in the black Questacon Science Circus shirt and blue hair]
Female 1: Science is part of our everyday lives and there is relevance everywhere and we like to share that with people so everyone has an opportunity to explore Questacon.
[Images move through a large group watching a demonstration by someone in a purple shirt that involves smoke and then a person in a purple shirt having their hands lit on fire by someone in a black shirt]
[Music plays and the image changes to show the number 35 made up of coloured shapes, and the Australian Government and Questacon logos, and text appears: Questacon Community Celebration, Saturday 25 and Sunday 26 November 9am to 5pm, Celebrate 35 years of science inspiration, Free activities, science shows and roving entertainment, Discounted entry to the Centre, www.questacon.edu.au]