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Robots, cars, experiments: making science fun
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BEIRUT: The spacious Beirut Hippodrome filled up with interactive science projects from universities and institutions across the country for the launch of a three-day event to break down cultural barriers and engage the public with science.

Under the towering umbrella of old pine trees, dozens of stands showing off robots, solar panels and physics demonstrations dotted the interior of the arena Thursday for the fifth annual Science Days event put on by the Culture Ministry, the Swiss Embassy and municipality of Geneva.

Around 90 projects from universities, businesses and research centers showcased much of the science work being done in the country. Students played games to learn about the science of nutrition and anatomy, while business representatives could stop by to look for cutting edge new computer science projects from university students.

“This is something new and very interesting,” 20-year-old Hassan Husseili said, showing off his mine detecting robot helicopter.

Husseili hopes businesses will take an interest in his small but high-powered robot, which can hover over the ground and find mines via metal detection, he said.

As opposed to traditional science fairs, the emphasis of Science Days is on making the work easily understandable, often using hands-on activities.

“What we are doing is showing that science is part of our daily life,” said Malek al-Khoury, a coordinator for Science Days, adding that the event was an opportunity to demonstrate “that science is something that can be transmitted in a very simple way.”

“The target is the whole population, mainly the one that understands nothing about science,” Khoury said.

“The way we are showing science, is also very new. In fact you are learning by playing.”

Scientists and students tried to make their specialized work accessible to the average person in order to break down what organizers see as Lebanese society’s apathy toward to the field.

“If you understand something very well, you can explain it very simply,” Khoury said.

At a tent about waste management, visitors could build crafts with empty bottles and old scraps while they learned about how recycling works.

“People here are really trying things and really listening to what we are doing,” Jonathan Tawk said.

He added that by engaging people with crafts, they become interested in learning more.

“People want to learn why,” the 24-year-old said.

Combating a lack of appreciation for science in Lebanese society is a challenge, but organizers said scientists have been able to start to change minds by directly connecting people to how science solves problems and changes their lives.

Scientific works involving physics and complex engineering were explained with simple demonstrations. Other often dry material like pharmaceutical and health studies were accompanied by games and projects to explain them.

Projects were divided up by category: The interior of the arena has sections for inventions, environment, physics, health, computer science and theater. A large tent at the center of the arena held periodic physics magic shows with rows of seating.

The effort to exhibit those projects and try to change the cultural perception of science has backing from a number of officials, including the Mayor of Beirut Bilal Hamad and Culture Minister Gaby Layyoun, who spoke at the opening of the event.

“Science Days portrays the relationship between knowledge and science to enhance our community lifestyle,” Layyoun said.

“The event not only makes science enjoyable and fun but teaches us the importance of concepts related to chemistry, biology, genetics and other fields of science,” he added.

After five years of running the Science Days project Khoury said he has begun to see results from engaging the public. Many attendees later showed interest in pursuing science careers or being involved in science projects.

When people connect with science it changes how they look at the world and the decisions they make, Khoury said. Learning how scientific advancements make so much of life possible is what the event is all about.

“You can learn, you can have fun, you can discuss.”

Science Days will continue to run at the Hippodrome Friday and Saturday from 3 p.m. to 9 p.m. For more information visit www.ayamalouloum.com.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on October 19, 2012, on page 2.
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