ASTEN 2023 and Canberran adventures

ASC Member and ASC Policy Assist, Shanii Phillips, recently attended the ASTEN 2023 conference in Canberra. The below is a recount of her experience.

Q: What’s better than one conference in a year?

A: One conference that you spend 12 months planning for, and a surprise conference that your workplace sends you with 4 weeks notice! ???? 
(Okay, it wasn’t quite as chaotic as it sounds.)

In one national capital, over two days of the ASTEN conference, three days in Canberra, four Scitech representatives, giving five presentations between us, I think we can successfully say “achievement unlocked” on ASTEN 2023 ???? To compare ASTEN with the PCST conference I attended earlier this year would be like comparing apples to oranges – both valuable in their own right, but at very different scales, with different target audiences and key outcomes. ASTEN was a great opportunity to catch up with former colleagues, meet new people and share stories from a practitioner-focused perspective. 

As usual, I underestimated how much one can fit into three days, so will pick out a few key highlights to share below, and my traditional post-conference acrostic poem ????

Penguin (my domestic travel mascot) excitedly about to enter Questacon

After a quick catch-up with ASC National Co-President Tom Carruthers, I continued my ‘free day’ in Canberra by visiting Questacon, the national science and technology centre. As a proud card-carrying member of the Scitech community, I must admit I was on a bit of a mission to prove that Scitech is better than Questacon, because Western Australians suffer from the need to prove the rest of the country that we’re valid and important. However, I was pleasantly surprised and impressed by our national science centre offering. While it was fun to recognise the ‘classic science centre’ exhibits and experiences, I especially enjoyed the use of the science/art installations found in the entrance foyer and on your journey to the top level.

Acknowledgment of Country artwork by Lynnice Letty Church
No Plan B, because we do not have a Planet B
Just too many mirrors – but who doesn’t love that?
Light-based sculptures, and Ngunawal word for learn
Ceiling fans with blades removed and replaced with colourful fabrics! So fun 🙂

I was also a little bit mesmerised by the moon installation in the central column of the building. As you walked down the ramp from the top level (with galleries spoked around the edges), you could look into the centre and see a giant sphere with the moon projected on it. At the ground level, you could walk into the ‘moon room’ and sit, or lie, or simply arch back and look up at the beautiful installation. It also made a great-looking nap room! ????

Penguin visiting the moon

Another important thing to add is that the Questacon café sold fairy bread … enough said ????

The Conference Itself

I’m always amazed by how much you can fit into a two-day conference. 

ASTEN 2023 kicked off with three insightful sessions from MOD, the Royal Botanic Gardens in Sydney, and the Australian Museum, exploring how they incorporate First Nations perspectives into their programs and experiences. What was especially amazing (for me) to see was all three talks were presented by First Nations staff members who play an integral role at their organisations to ensure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories and content is being shared in a culturally sensitive manner and represent their experiences in a genuine way. While Scitech continues to work on our Reconciliation Action Plan, we don’t have any dedicated First Nations content or key First Nations staff members responsible for providing their perspectives on how to integrate Aboriginal knowledge into our experiences. It highlighted to me that while Scitech is taking steps in the right direction, we still have a long way to go – but many other peer organisations and colleagues we can learn from. A key learning that stood out for me was during the presentation by Kalkani Choolburra from the Royal Botanic Gardens, who had recently put a lot of hard work, research and community consultation into developing a First Nations Protocol Handbook to use when discussing native plants. 

“Non-First Nations people can announce the chapter, but it is the responsibility of First Nations people to tell the story.”

This means that non-First Nations staff members can give broad overview (such as pointing out that Aboriginal people used a wide variety of plants for food), but the specific cultural knowledge (such as explaining the preparation of Zamia seeds for safe consumption) was the role of First Nations team members. Such nuances are something I’m still learning and want to learn more about moving forward to ensure I, and Scitech, can continue to play our role in extending equity and respectfully sharing the stories and wisdom of our First Scientists.

It was a delight to see former Scitech colleague, Amy Boulding in fine form as she and Felicity (Flick) Waldock from CSIRO shared how they engaged First Nations and rural students through the STEM Together program. As an experienced science communicator, Amy began the session by bribing everyone with lollies and using a physically interactive exercise to wake everyone up after a long morning ????

Amy and Flick warming up everyone’s brains with a ‘Meerkat’ activity ????

STEM Together focuses on highlighting the existing strengths of students, aiming to build Capability, Confidence and Connection. There were strong analogies between the goals of STEM Together and the Equity Compass/YESTEM projectwhich I use for evaluation at Scitech. Key principles for practice are shown in the image below:

Key guidelines: Open questions, Praise the process (not the outcome), Celebrate skills and behaviours, Role model curiosity and learning, and Encourage visitor-led learning.

Finally, Flick shared a tool she had developed called the My Strengths Wheel, which is a self-reflective tool that could be used with students to identify what they’re already good at. Keeping in mind teenagers often don’t want to admit they’re really good at things, the Strengths Wheel focuses on hobbies and favourite activities (which tend to indicate strengths). 

Being the token evaluator at Scitech, it’s always nice to learn about how other organisations collect data on their visitors (in the name of research), so I enjoyed hearing perspectives from Jenny Booth (Questacon) and Dr Chris Banks (CSIRO) about how they conduct evaluation during the “MELding” session. Chris Banks was brutally honest in his reflections on the challenges of conducting evaluations, with key challenges being Time, Complexity and Capacity. 

“At the level of individual [STEM] programs, impact assessment has been next to impossible.”

South Australian Academy for Gender Equity in STEM

In good news, these challenges can be overcome by good Program Design, Planning and Evaluation. Dr Banks also shared some key guiding theories that I hadn’t come across before – the ‘Bodies of Water classification’ became a popular framework referred to by presenters over the rest of the conference and I can’t wait to explore the others in more detail!

Examples of guiding theories to assist with program evaluation, as shared by Dr Chris Banks

“If she can do it, maybe I can too.”

Sally Hurst

The world is full of some incredible people, and science communication is filled with amazing role models, but it’s always extra amazing to be taken by surprise by the stories and accomplishments of unassuming people sitting in the row in front of you at a conference – and Sally Hurst is one such example. Sally shared an empowering story of growing up in a rural town with limited STEM engagement and education resources, she never had strong experiences or role models for science at school, thinking she’d end up in a humanities-focused career. It was through informal learning experiences and jobs, such as working at the National Dinosaur Museum, that enlightened her passion for science, which sent her down the path of archaeology and palaeontology at uni. After completing a Masters degree and becoming a Superstar of STEM, Sally is now a passionate advocate for rural students to have access to STEM role models, and uses her communication skills and science knowledge to showcase how it is possible to follow the same career pathway. Superstar indeed!

Sally Hurst sharing stories of her early years at the National Dinosaur Museum.

I also loved hearing about the ‘Science is a Superpower’ program being run by Scienceworks in Melbourne. The program combines short online videos and full-day workshops to encourage 10-to-12-year-old girls who have begun to ‘switch off’ from STEM to identify their ‘superpowers’ and see how they can apply those to STEM careers. The superpowers, very importantly, are human qualities vs. ‘STEM Skills’ of Curiosity, Kindness, Energy, Strength and Calmness, and the content explores the different ways these can be successfully applied to STEM careers.

Jonathon Shearer sharing ‘The Superpowers’

And finally, no conference based at Questacon would be complete without an appearance by the explosive and enthusiastic Graham Walker! Not only was it fun to go back to my roots and watch some fun science dems, but as a researcher, Graham also brought some much-needed academic flavour to wrap up the conference. Using a series of science demonstrations, Graham explained the power of simple dems to make abstract concepts, such as climate change and energy, visible and immediate. While showcasing his suite of home-made contraptions, he was very open to providing advice and assistance for others who wanted to build their own. My favourite moment was when discussing how to build an electrolysis device from a metal lunchbox, outlet power and a concentrated salt solution: 

“If you want to build one, please get in touch – there’s heaps of things that can go wrong!”

Graham Walker, when discussing how to make home-made green hydrogen

Conferences are all about people ❤

As mentioned, I was lucky enough to travel to Canberra with three wonderful colleagues (Lisa, Will and Colin) who made the three days especially enjoyable. It was also lovely to catch up with former Scitech Outreach Manager Amy Boulding (who is kicking all the goals at CSIRO) and research colleague Graham Walker.

Great to see you, Amy!
Colin testing Questacon’s Bernoulli blower
Because fun photos = best photos
Pre-conference networking
Hanging with Graham Walker and ‘Piston Pete’
Colin sharing how Scitech is pivoting our Outreach strategy to extend equity
Will and his bread

ASTEN 2023 – An Acrostic Summary

A is for Access and Acceptance. It is a universal truth that most people don’t enjoy public speaking, and several presenters began their talks with an acknowledgment that they were pushing through their nerves to speak. Something that surprised me at the end of the conference was an acknowledgement of this by Will, the ASTEN President, who called for a round of applause for the kindness and support of the ASTEN audience and congratulated the nervous presenters for pushing through and delivering their talks. I’ve never seen anything so wholesome in the context of a large public speaking event! As someone who recently pushed to overcome my own fear of public speaking, I used to ‘suffer in silence’ while everyone else confidently spoke. It was really lovely to see such encouragement and recognition that while public speaking is something “we all have to do”, it’s not something everyone feels comfortable doing – and that’s okay.

S is for Stories. Not only were there great stories of successes and learnings from practice, but also a range of beautiful and personal stories from the ASTEN presenters themselves. Flick Waldock and Sally Hurst both stood out because they shared stories of their own experiences growing up, and how they use their current work to advocate for and improve access to informal STEM engagement to students in regional and remote areas through their work. It’s wonderful to hear such examples of success while not forgetting your roots, and using your vocation and skills as a tool to share, give back to your community and be a role model for others. 

T is for Tiny Science Centres. I never realised the Australasian science centre network was so vast, and included so many small organisations! The UOW Science Space literally brought half of their team (of 8) to ASTEN, the Cairns Children’s Museum is still on the hunt for a permanent home, the Discovery Science and Technology Centre in Bendigo runs with 11 permanent staff … and they’re all doing incredible things! One day, when I have the time and money, I’d love to visit each and everyone of them ❤ 

E is for Equity and Environment. Extending equity and considering the environment (both in content and experiences, as well as the physical make-up of those programs and experiences) were key themes of ASTEN 2023. A lightbulb moment for me came from the presentation by MOTAT, where they discussed printing graphics panels on biodegradable cardboard and using screws to hold them together instead of plastic-based glues and tapes. Even considering how parts of exhibits could be reused or repurposed, such as giving away glass jars in one exhibit to staff members as a Christmas present prior to dismantling was a lovely touch. Going that extra step further to consider the whole life cycle vs. just the planning and delivery is an important part of walking the walk when it comes to sustainability, and New Zealand often outshines in the respect! Equity is obviously a passion of mine in science communication, and it was fantastic to see the amazing initiatives being implemented across the country in science centres and museums, both big and small ❤

N is for New Networks. Yes, ok, the “N” in “ASTEN” does stand for network, but it holds true for the acronym and this acrostic! Despite the cosy nature of the ASTEN conference, with around 55 attendees, there was so much opportunity for new collaborations and forming of networks. 

Last but not least …

Special thanks and congrats to the ASTEN Executive for organising the conference, Questacon for hosting us bunch of rogues, and Scitech for letting me tag along. Looking forward to hearing more stories from everyone in 2024!

The original copy was posted on and is reproduced here with permission.

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