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Promoting African science at the Beijing Science Festival 2017

By Joe Sibiya, SAEON Ndlovu Node, with contributions by Daniel Matsapola (SANSA)
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One of Beijing’s fledgling scientists engrossed in the food webs of the African savannah


The stand proved to be very popular with visitors


SAEON’s Joe Sibiya was on hand to assist the young scientists


One of the features of the festival that stood out was the level of parental involvement in the activities their children engaged with

In view of its 2017 theme, ‘Green Belt and Road’, SAEON was invited to participate in the 7th annual Beijing Science Festival which took place from 14 to 18 September 2017.

SAEON was represented by Joe Sibiya of the Ndlovu Node in Phalaborwa. The South African National Space Agency (SANSA) was also invited and was represented by Daniel Matsapola.

The festival provided an opportunity for SAEON and SANSA to exhibit and conduct science engagement activities at the NRF/SAASTA stand for five consecutive days.

On arrival at the festival venue, a tent adjacent to the Beijing Olympic Stadium had already been set up. As it was the first time Joe and Daniel attended the festival, they had to think on their feet to coordinate and complement their activities since they were sharing a stand.

The SAEON science engagement focus was the African Savannah Ecosystem using animal- and bird-spotting cards to demonstrate the food web, while SANSA’s activities consisted of the building of a paper model of the Sumbandila satellite. The two science engagement activities selected profiled South Africa’s science achievements in a very unique manner. The activities demonstrated how conservationists/ environmentalists use the satellite to gather environmental data as a better way to manage the environment, and profiled the role of the satellite information user in defining the specification of the satellite mission.

The language barrier was overcome through the availability of student translators who are fluent in both Chinese and English. The translators were trained in demonstrating the activities to the audience and played a critical role in explaining the concepts to visitors.

In total, three groups of two translators each were trained during the five-day festival. The translators said they derived great value from the activities due to the amount of time spent with the scientists. The stand’s dual-branded banner and the translation of SAASTA into Chinese helped visitors to recognise the stand without needing to ask for directions from the translators.

One of the features of the festival that stood out for Joe was the level of parental involvement in the activities their children engaged with. This helped the children to develop the confidence needed to be comfortable with the activities.

The diversity of age groups was another factor that characterised the calibre of visitors to the stand. People of all ages attended the activities. The SAASTA stand proved to be very popular with visitors. It was clear that the visitors were fascinated by Africans, almost conferring celebrity status on Daniel and Joe based on the number of requests for photographs at the stand, with the visitors insisting on having copies of the photos taken with their own devices.

The availability of the student translators made it easier for the South African team to visit nearby stands to assess the type of activities on offer. The highlight of the festival was the day the mayor of Beijing visited the stands. The media hype around his visit attracted the crowd into the exhibition tents, but the limited time meant that not every stand was visited, including the SAASTA stand.

Field trip to the Juyongguan Great Wall

On the final day of exhibitions (18 September), Joe and Daniel dismantled their exhibition stands at 12 o’clock to set out on the scenic Juyongguan Great Wall trip. On the journey their host, Mr Jason Sun, briefed the group about the significance of the Great Wall in preventing invasions and protecting the Silk Road trade.

The two South Africans arrived all fired up to conquer the Great Wall. At the lower level (steps) a signboard with this inscription issued a warning to climbers to pace themselves to reach the peak of the wall: If you have heart or brain diseases please climb the Great Wall according to your capability. In stalls at the foot of the wall, T-shirts bearing the slogan ‘I climbed the Great Wall’ are sold, which proved very popular with climbers.

“All in all, the Beijing expedition was the most thrilling adventure and most fulfilling experience,” said Joe.

SAASTA and the Beijing Science Festival

The South African Agency for Science and Technology Advancement (SAASTA), an entity of the National Research Foundation (NRF), has a collaboration agreement with the Beijing Association for Science and Technology (BAST) in terms of science festivals, science communication and Olympiad competitions.

In terms of the agreement, SAASTA participates in the Beijing Science Festival on an annual basis. Established in 2011, the Beijing Science Festival is aimed at strengthening international cooperation and exchange on the popularisation of science, and raising scientific literacy.

SAASTA provides NRF facilities the opportunity to participate in such festivals. Travel costs inclusive of local/international flights, travel insurance, incidental expenses, visas, Beijing local transport, lodging and food are covered by BAST and SAASTA.

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SANSA representative Daniel Matsapola (left) and SAEON’s Joe Sibiya with one of the student translators who helped them overcome the language barrier

Joe conquering the Juyongguan Great Wall                                                                                                                                                          

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