Located on the southern edge of New Zealand, Dunedin is a small but pretty city that packs a remarkably educated, creative and innovative punch. It is home to the world-renowned University of Otago, New Zealand’s oldest, and has a rather clever population that boasts more PHDs per capita than an episode of the Big Bang Theory.
So, you might say it’s a bit of a no brainer that Dunedin should play host to the New Zealand International Science Festival, a two-week biennale of New Zealand’s excellence in all things scientific, technological and environmental. What is a bigger surprise to us is just how much fun it is.
So, what was so special about the New Zealand International Science Festival? Well, besides the awesome location and friendly Dunedites. Well if 20+ world leaders in science and over 230 events in 24 locations wasn’t enough, the fact that so many of them were accessible to kids of all ages (and their parents) certainly was.
From morning to night, we geeked out over an inspiring lineup of hands-on STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts & maths) workshops and events including brain bending demonstrations and workshops on topics as diverse as robotics, virtual reality technology, medicine, chemistry, physics, psychology, astronomy and more.
We started our adventures in brain building at the Otago University Expo, where when we weren’t swooning over the pretty historic campus, we got very hands on with STEAM.
Indeed, we started our adventures in science inside a giant inflatable brain before Raffles gloved up and tweaked some actual heart strings during a dissection. Yes, of an actual heart.
Meanwhile Sugarpuff was waxing philosophic and taking a stroll with NAO, a super cute, multi-interactive, humanoid robot.
NAO came all the way from China for the event and can talk, walk, dance and recognise people. It also appears that NAO likes to hold hands and hanging out with my girl. But then who can blame him? She is kinda cute.
The kids hung out with skeletons, stopped for craft sessions and Botany demonstrations of carnivorous plants and experimented with photo mosaics, 3D printing, interactive sculpture and mind-controlled drones. Sugarpuff made pipe cleaner neurons while learning about the brain, and Raffles watched one get dissected.
In the food technology area, my littlest mad scientist created gooey, gummy treats, while her brother took on a food fragrance challenge (and nailed it).
And when it came to computer science, Sugarpuff used her hands to scoop sand into virtual mountains, valleys, and lakes in a 3D sandbox while Raff solved complex 3D puzzles, with surprising skill, using Virtual Reality technology.
We finished our day at the brilliant Future Energy show, where science communicator Graham Walker Find educated kids and their parents about the science behind future energy technologies like fuel cells, hydrogen, carbon capture and biofuels by exploding things and firing marshmallow ballistics.
The real prize though was meeting Dr Graham at an event later that night and the kids getting to assist him in shooting marshmallows from a vacuum cleaner bazooka and an angry bird from a homemade canon while learning about science. The edible helium balloons were a bonus!
And that was just day one of the New Zealand International Science Festival! The incredible events just kept coming. We spent a night at the Beverly-Begg Observatory with the passionate folks from The Dunedin Astronomical Society who let the kids hold 3D models of space debris currently orbiting the earth, explore the observatory dome and guided them around the universe with a laser tour of the sky.
But the highlight was spying stars and planets through the Observatory’s super powered telescopes. The kids were beside themselves when they were able to focus in on Jupiter and its moons, and were in fits when they saw Saturn’s actual rings. I swear they would have happily spent the whole night with their gaze fixed on space.
Over the following days the New Zealand International Science Festival offered even more options for kids. From wacky water experiments at Moana Pool for visitors to try out, like becoming a jellyfish in the wave pool and making a tsunami in the diving pool, to a Jules Verne Steampunk and Train Day at the wonderful Toitū Otago Settlers Museum.
There’s also a first flight demonstration where kids can assist newly-emerged butterflies take flight in the Tropical Forest at the awesome Tūhura Science Centre in the Otago Museum (a must visit).
And an ongoing programme of hands on workshops for kids on engineering and electronics, coding, water rockets and DIY Marshmallow bazooka making and more.
Best of all was the number of inspiring female scientists there to prove to my creative and clever daughter that the weird, wacky and wonderful world of science is great for girls. Not that she needed a whole lot of convincing. Indeed, the only thing she needs convincing about now is whether she wants to be a biologist, astronomer, physicist, psychologist, chemist or robotics engineer when she grows up.
Raffles and Sugarpuff were quite literally blown away by the incredible hands on activities and sheer amount of knowledge they had packed into their spongy brains during our visit. I mean, a couple of days at the New Zealand International Science Festival, and I’ve brought two baby genii home. Two kids who, prior to our visit, had a passing interest in STEAM subjects and who are now quite literally obsessed with learning more. I’d call that a win. For me. For the kids. And for Dunedin. Indeed, they’re already lobbying for us to return for the next one. And who am I to argue with science?
Disclosure: The Eats Worlds were guests of Enterprise Dunedin but, as always, all opinions, robot walking, heart dissecting and marshmallow firing is our own.