Improving the Image of the U.S. Through Science Literacy

By Blakesley Burkhart

I recently attended SciFest Africa 2010, the largest science festival in Africa, held annually in Grahamstown, South Africa. More than 80,000 people from all over the African continent attended the six-day science festival. It might seem strange that, given I am a graduate student in astronomy from the University of Wisconsin Madison, I traveled 10,000 miles to a tiny town in South Africa to do physics shows for kids that I will most likely never see again.

I went to this festival for many reasons: The first one was to reach out to children and educators in Africa and to provide an image of a scientist as someone who isn’t an old man with crazy hair. The second reason this trip was valuable was that it enabled me to be an ambassador for the USA in Africa. Science is just one way that the Obama administration plans on increasing the USA’s image in the eyes of other nations.

According to the State Department, “The Obama Administration is seeking opportunities to use science as a framework for building our international relations.” Festivals such as SciFest provided ample opportunity to both educate people about physics and to provide a positive image for the USA. Before every show at the festival, I told the audience that I was born and raised in Kentucky and now attend graduate school in astronomy in Wisconsin.

South African children learn about physics at SciFest.

In addition to the questions I received about physics, I also received many about what the culture was like in the USA and about the possibilities for kids to study there. This opened up a huge dialogue about the differences and similarities between my country and theirs. Many of the kids had never met someone from the states, and their impressions were entirely based on what they had seen on TV (if they were lucky enough to have TV) or what they had heard about the USA in the news or from their parents. In the end, most people went away with an increased knowledge of physics, new images of what scientists look like, and a little more understanding about the people of the United States of America.

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