Bringing Science to Life
PL, Miss Ingenuity, PrimoLife magazine, May 2015
You may not have heard of Rachael Hughes, but chances are if you’ve visited Scitech in the last few years you’ll have experienced her particular gift for coming up with engaging, informative and fun, fun, fun interactive science exhibits. Gabi Mills meets the multi-talented scientist-cum-fire tamer.
It’s a long way from the flat lands of Lincolnshire (UK) to Perth’s scientific hub, Scitech, but Rachael Hughes couldn’t be happier with her life-changing choice to move continents over 13 years ago.
“We just decided to move to Australia – we didn’t know anybody and had never been before but decided to come anyway.”
The ex-physics teacher and her partner travelled around Australia before ending up in Perth where she discovered Scitech.
“I’d always loved the National History and Science museums in London so was so pleased to find Scitech – I just loved it.”
She loved it so much in fact that she quit her teaching job and, for the first time in her life, may not have had another job to go to but certainly had a plan in mind.
“I volunteered, took on extra projects, got my face known around Scitech until they took me on.”
Now as the organisation’s exhibit experience co-ordinator, it’s Rachael’s role to work out what visitors will do with the exhibits which in turn informs the design of future exhibitions.
“I suppose the best description of what I do is a science communicator,” she says, and one of the ways she and the Scitech team communicate to the many, many visitors to Scitech each year is via bespoke exhibits, built from scratch in the endearingly whacky workshop, tucked away behind a sliding glass door near the Rio Tinto Innovation Central exhibition.
Here you’ll find Mythbuster-style shenanigans going on as science technicians and engineers fiddle about with various future exhibits while, above your head, a life-sized astronaut is suspended from the ceiling. There’s a busy buzz about the place as long-time Scitech boffins go about their business, whether they’re designing a new space age exhibit on a computer screen or repairing an existing attraction that’s been ‘loved’ a little too hard by the thousands of hands which push, squeeze and turn the gadgets every day.
Currently the team are working on a brand new exhibition planned for November – Astronaut.
“We’re building that from scratch, so I’ve been working out what we need to communicate to visitors about astronauts and space,” says Rachael.
Working with the Director of Science Programs and the Exhibition Design team, it’s not just a matter of putting together a brilliant exhibition; this is an exhibition, like others in Scitech’s past, which has to travel.
“We loan our exhibitions to other venues all round the world so there are lots of considerations we have to sew into the design which allows the exhibits to be packed up so that they can travel internationally.”
As everything Rachael and the team create is a one-off, there aren’t exactly templates they can follow, so part of the joy of her role is the collaborative creative thinking which happens as they wrestle with tricky dilemmas and innovative solutions.
“Each exhibition has a different look so I sit down with the graphic/CAD designers and the workshop manager and work out what will work as a design – above all we have to make it robust as over 2,000 visitors will potentially interact with it every day.”
Costs are higher than you’d think too, with many of the exhibitions having a budget of around $1 million.
“I tend to start off at the drawing board stage of a new exhibition with a fairly idealistic approach but then Paul, the workshop manager will say, ‘you know, that probably won’t actually work’,” she says, smiling.
A new exhibition takes around a year to bring together from concept to opening day, with “a lot of last minute scrambling”, but the sense of achievement on launch day is high, says Rachael.
“Astronaut will be arranged in different sections, like ‘what kind of training do astronauts go through’ and ‘what does a space lab look like’. Fingers crossed we’ve managed to get hold of a space toilet for this section.”
Scitech is a special place for many reasons, not least because it’s the only place in Australia which regularly builds new science experiences from the ground up. It’s one of the reasons that its exhibits are so highly sought after by other science centres and museums all around the world. At any one time, there’s an original Scitech exhibition running in Europe, Asia and the US, originating from Rachael’s crucible of creativity at City West.
In her career, Rachael’s been responsible for enlightening so many children who’ve passed through Scitech’s doors, but ask her to pick her favourite exhibition to date and she struggles.
“They’ve all been so different but probably one of the most interesting ones was the Rescue exhibition. We did a lot of work with St John Ambulance, FESA and the SES and got lots of input to help make lia which regularly builds new science experiences from the ground up. It’s one of the reasons that its exhibits are t a really authentic exhibition. I’m pretty proud of that one.”
And then she remembers another one. “But then the next one was Science Fiction, Science Future where we explored how fiction and reality could be merged to try to predict future developments – that was great too.”
It’s true to say that you won’t find another Rachael anywhere else in the world.
“My job doesn’t exist anywhere else,” she laughs.
“I started as a science presenter (where I learned the fire taming trick), came from teaching, helped create schools programs and also write much of the text that runs alongside the images and graphics, providing context for the exhibits. So I guess to be me you’d have to have great communication skills and a good understanding of what visitors want from the exhibits themselves, as well as the passion for sharing science.”
It’s not enough, she says, to just educate the kids. Rachael’s aim is to get whole families involved so if you haven’t been to Scitech for a while, you’ll find lots of multi-user exhibits.
“It’s about engaging with exhibits together, having conversations about what they’re doing, and seeing how that’s relevant to their lives. We’re not necessarily about trying to communicate a specific idea, like how rivers form or electricity works, it’s more about the process of science and developing curiosity.
“That’s exciting to me – there’s a whole world out there.”
Scitech is a not-for-profit organization that seeks to increase awareness, interest, capability and participation by all Western Australians in science, technology, engineering and maths. It was established in 1988. The venue offer visitors many levels of science engagement
on each floor in the Lotterywest Science Theatre, in the Planetarium, the CSIRO Lab, and in the puppet theatre. They also have a professional learning team to support teachers and improve classroom learning about science, and an outreach team who takes science onto the road to those who cannot make it to the centre.
Exhibitions are made at Scitech every year or two and then get sent off to travel the world, informing and communicating the excitement of science on a global scale.
Reproduced with the kind permission of Primolife magazine.