Nanci Nott shares her experience of Quantum Words Perth; Western Australia's first writers' festival dedicated to science, creativity, and wonder.
A week ago, I wouldn’t have included plant cell exploration on my to-do list. Nor (if you’d asked me), would I have expected middle-class or climate change to become terms I could associate with rap music.
But science and words are catalysts for change, and my family and I have been immersed in both, all weekend. Quantum Words Perth changed my perspective on more than one topic, and provided my children with unique learning experiences they won't forget anytime soon.
On Friday morning, we explored the inside of a plant cell, through the magic (okay, science) of Virtual Reality. It’s official – a bit of early morning microtubule organisation is a great way to start the day. Karina Price, from the ARC Centre of Excellence in Plant Energy Biology, developed this immersive sub-microscopic VR experience, which has impressive applications in STEM education. I had a short turn (in between my children’s long turns), and I was blown away by the innovative concept. My kids would have spent the entire day learning about plant cell biology, were it not for the lure of festival panels and science discussions!
The Cool Jobs #1 session was about journalism and climate change, with award-winning international journalist (and author of Feeling the Heat), Jo Chandler. Jo talked about unpacking complex science for mainstream consumption, and about her passion for exploring controversial issues, through socially-conscious storytelling. Jo’s session was open to school groups, and it wouldn’t surprise me if a higher-than-average percentage of these students, as a direct result of Jo’s talk, decided to pursue careers in journalism.
Another panel, Cool Jobs #2, was chaired by Peel Bright Minds’ very own Sarah Curran Ragan! Her first guest was Leif Cocks (author of Orangutans: My Cousins, My Friends), who has dedicated his life to protecting orangutans. Leif’s greatest wish is for his current role to become obsolete, because then, and only then, will he know he has completed his mission.
The second Cool Jobs #2 guest was Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, an award-winning radio astronomer who is passionate about bringing the beauty of astronomy to the world. You may be familiar with Natasha’s name if you’ve listened to her TED talk… or if you attended a certain Peel Bright Minds event about radio astronomy.
Natasha was incredible! The passion she has for her work was apparent in every word she spoke. Her clarity of communication maintained a high level of audience engagement throughout her talk, which is not always easy to achieve, especially when presenting complex subject matter to a room predominantly comprised of high school groups. Luckily for the supervising teachers, Natasha’s talk was anything but dry. She covered everything from pictures of black holes, to the probability of worm holes. If you haven’t heard Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker speak, you might like to watch her TED Talk.
The third and final Cool Jobs #2 guest was Karina Price, creator of the Virtual Reality Plant Cell Suite. Karina is a scientist, who has chosen to move into the field of science communication. She worked as a Scitech presenter (dream job alert!) before moving into her current role. Karina designs and implements immersive educational experiences, such as the Virtual Reality Plant Cell Suite, and a jumping castle plant cell. She showed us how immersive learning in STEM (using VR) can enhance student comprehension. No surprises there, but I especially liked how Karina was able to demonstrate this... using PlayDoh, of all things!
If you're an educator, you might like to check out Karina’s work, and book a Virtual Plant Cell experience for your own students.
The final session for Friday was distinctly different from the others. If you’ve never heard of Baba Brinkman, imagine a middle-class franken-gangster made from pieces of Lin-Manuel Miranda, Eminem, Brian Cox and Greta Thunberg.
Baba Brinkman was, by far, the most humorous presenter of the day. I never imagined climate change could lend itself so well to rap music; although, if American History (Hamilton-style) can achieve cult hip-hop status, why not science?
I was impressed by the lyrical content, humour, and intelligence of Baba Brinkman’s performance, but what really stuck with me was his free-style wrap up (pun intended) of the audience’s own climate change comments. Using the example of free-style rap (to explore how true freedom can only exist within a predefined structure) was a very effective means of subtly encouraging the audience to take intentional responsibility for their own words and actions. Or maybe it was a statement about shifting climate blame from individuals to policy-makers? Or maybe I’m reading too much into it. Either way, I will be buying all of Brinkman’s albums. Unfortunately, we were unable to attend Baba Brinkman’s sessions on Evolution and Consciousness. If he ever returns to Perth, we will be there. With no beef.
When my kids and I returned to Quantum Words this morning, we enjoyed the ‘Alternative Truth: Writing About Science in a Post-Truth World’ panel – jovially introduced by Guy Boyce – with Lyn Beazley, Jo Chandler, and Joëlle Gergis as guests. Quantum Words Festival director (and award-winning journalist) Jane McCredie, moderated the panel with graceful tact; a desirable trait in the event of rogue audience panelists!
Lynn Beazley made some great points (as usual), which led me to wonder why every school in Australia doesn’t embrace a carbon neutral program. Yes, I am mentioning this specifically as a not-so-subtle hint. Do some research. Approach your local school. Everyone will benefit.
During the panel, Jo Chandler emphasised the importance – and potential pitfalls – of re-humanising science writing, in order to bring relevance and understanding to mainstream audiences, after which Joëlle Gergis (award-winning scientist, and author of Sunburnt Country: The future and history of climate change in Australia) spoke of her professionally-motivated grief – a largely ignored aspect of science – which tied in beautifully with the points Jo was making.
Western Australian children’s author/illustrator/speaker, James Foley, can always be counted on to get kids excited about anything; including (but not limited to) dung beetles and dead bunnies. True to form, James incited an enthusiastic brain storm in his Future Machine session. With a bit of encouragement, the kids who attended Future Machine wrote, drew, and invented to their hearts’ content. An un-inventing machine for potatoes, a body swapper, and a cat feeder, are just a few examples of inventions the kids came up with. My own eight-year-old son (who may-or-may-not have been inspired by Baba Brinkman) invented a machine for solving climate change. You’re welcome. James Foley's Future Machine session was a lot of fun. In fact, it was my son’s personal festival highlight.
Our family’s final foray into Quantum Words materialised in the form of YA author, A.J. Betts, who was captivating to listen to, and not just because she has a subconscious obsession with trapping people.
For someone who constantly claimed not to be an expert, A.J. had a lot of wisdom (and so many random facts!) to share with her audience. I particularly loved Betts' talk, because it was about two of my favourite things – science, and fiction. Also, she encouraged people to use bean-bags instead of chairs. This, combined with a casual (yet super-informative) presentation style, made A.J. Betts' Science in Fiction session the most relaxing of the day, both literally and figuratively.
Science in Fiction focused mainly on Betts' latest books, Hive, and Rogue, due to their futuristic nature, and sciencey (which is apparently an adjective now) content. The science behind A.J. Betts' fictional world-building was fascinating, and I’m quite sure nobody wanted the session to end. Alas, it did, and with it, so did our experience of Quantum Words Perth… unless you count one final visit to the Boffins Books stall.
Quantum Words Perth provided many excellent opportunities for kids and adults to engage creatively with science, and get people thinking about solutions to some of the problems in our world.
The next generation will (hopefully) succeed where we have failed, and (thanks to Quantum Words) they will be armed with solutions for climate change, and blueprints for potato un-inventers. Our children are our future radio astronomers, journalists, climate change rappers, animal advocates, and authors. They will combine the arts and sciences in ways we aren’t even capable of comprehending… yet.
Tomorrow (Sunday, November 10th) is officially the last day of Quantum Words, so those of you without reality-related commitments should drop whatever you’re doing, and get down to the State Theatre of Western Australia to attend panels about poo (not a typo), climate change, biodiversity, writing the universe, and moving towards a better world. There will also be free events for families and children, including sessions with Dr Natasha Hurley-Walker, Mark Greenwood, and HM Waugh.
Thank you so much to Writing WA, Writing NSW, all the special guests, the amazing volunteers, and the State Theatre of Western Australia, for making this perspective-enhancing, to-do-list-altering festival such a positive experience.
By Nanci Nott
Nanci Nott is a mother, educator, and author, who believes intrinsically motivated learning is the birthright of every human. Nanci loves persuading people to pursue their personal passions, and she adores alliteration.