Making Science Cool: Inspiring Students and Giving Society Something to Celebrate
Just a few days before we kicked off the month-long San Diego Science Festival in March, I wrote a post for the Xconomist Forum that concluded, “if we mean to achieve the essential goal of reviving American Science, the San Diego Science Festival is poised to provide an important start.”
It proved to be a daunting task: 30 days; 350 collaborating organizations; 500 free events; 200,000 participants. So, what did I learn from spearheading this event? (More on that later.) And why am I taking on an even larger initiative—the creation of the first National Science Festival in Washington D.C.?
One reason is because it matters. It matters because scientific breakthroughs are crucial to our innovation economy. It also matters because our leadership in science and technology innovation is central to the way we view ourselves as Americans. From Ben Franklin to Thomas Edison and Burt Rutan, we see ourselves as ingenious, entrepreneurial, independent, and inventive.
Our goal for the inaugural San Diego Science Festival was to celebrate science with a science party because—to quote inventor, entrepreneur and FIRST Robotics founder Dean Kamen—“Society gets what it celebrates.” What he means is that if scientists are perceived as boring and science careers as dull, Nobel Laureates can’t compete with rock stars or sports heroes in the minds of our nation’s youth. But if scientists are perceived as cool and sexy, then perhaps our next generation can see science careers as a way to improve the world. So our goal was to create the festival as a fun opportunity for our community and or city to come together to discover, explore, discuss, be amazed, and be inspired.
We modeled the San Diego Science Festival after popular science festivals in Europe and Australia. These festivals last seven to fourteen days, and draw between 100,000 and 1 million people to celebrate science through inspiring lectures, hands-on activities and exhibits, contests, theatre, comedy, poetry, art, film, and music—all celebrating science.
To make a lasting impression among San Diego’s youth, our month-long festival rolled out in a progression:
—First, we brought scientists to schools. Leading scientists spoke at school assemblies describing the field they’re passionate about, the rewards and challenges of their own career path and the opportunities for young people in the sciences (dubbed the “Nifty Fifty” and “Lunch with a Laureate” ).
—Second, we brought students to major science venues throughout the county for hands-on interactive experiments in state-of-the-art research environments, which we dubbed “Science on the Mesa.”
—Third, we brought the public to a series of fun and informal science events with a fun and catchy hook (dubbed, collectively, “Festival Events” with offerings like the Science of Wine, Chemistry of Love, Science of Chocolate, Politics of Science, and 75 others)
—Finally, we brought everyone together in Balboa Park for a major science expo. For this “Woodstock of Science,” 250 organizations presented hands-on interactive activities, exhibits and stage shows geared to the general public.
Here’s my tough grading of these events with a candid discussion of lessons learned and how I will do it differently at our national Science Festival—the USA Science Festival.
Lunch with a Laureate
Eight of Southern California’s Nobel Laureates hosted brown bag lunches with groups of 100 students, with an informal Q&A, about their perspectives on the future of science, and the Laureate’s own journey. The Laureates were terrific, bringing science to the kids’ level, personally greeting each student and remaining afterward to sign autographs.. The students and their teachers were asked to prepare questions in advance. We asked the Laureates to confine their opening remarks to five minutes, and to start the discussion with a current hot issue in their field. This program humanized these figures whose careers seem so remote and unattainable.
One hundred of San Diego’s leading scientists presented school assemblies at middle and high schools. Many were truly magical, but some fell flat. Commanding the attention of a large high school audience proved to be significantly more challenging than speaking to professional peers. Making multiple presentations to smaller groups would be better. The best talks incorporated multi-media, provocative ideas, hands-on demos, audience participation and, YES, gave out small prizes. The talks that fell flat were not modified for kids. The best speakers focused on the impact of science on the students’ lives versus the details of the science itself. Recomended: explicit instructions to speakers and advance interaction between speakers and teachers to calibrate their expectations. The best assemblies occurred when teachers were equally engaged in the outcome and students were given an assignment to demonstrate active participation.
Science on the Mesa
Forty companies opened their doors one evening for groups of 50 to 200, students.. The companies created marvelous programs with novel experiments, interactions with their young scientists and senior management, theatrical performances, vanity pictures in lab coats and surgery gowns, fun prizes and more. The toughest problem was ensuring student attendance. We were disappointed by last-minute cancellations, although attendance commitments were stressed and we gave bus grants. We should have, in airline fashion, overbooked and insisted on formal buy-in of school principals to ensure delivery of registered students.
Example: the Science of Wine – the participants gathered at a biotech company involved in research on the science of taste. Participants heard about the latest research on the anti-aging properties of red wine while tasting wines. Timing and venue selection were critical in accommodating audiences of unpredictable sizes.
Our finale was a science blowout in Balboa Park, with 250 organizations offering dynamic exhibits, demonstrations, and stage shows for LOTS of receptive smiling faces. No static poster sessions. We hoped for 10,000 attendees and got more than 75,000. A major reason for success: We persuaded schools to give extra credit to students who came. Exhibitors loved the event. Sample thank-you note: “Thank you for showing that, as a scientist, I am cool” or “That was an exhausting day, but I’d do it again in a flash.” Our biggest problem: parking. Also, insufficient volunteer training. Evidence of success: most financial sponsors put a line item in their 2010 budget for the next festival.
The Inaugural San Diego Science Festival demonstrated that people of all ages respond positively to science when it is presented in a fun, exciting, accessible way. Seeing the thousands of smiling faces at the Expo inspires me to do it all again. See for yourself here.
That’s why I’ve decided to take the festival to the next level and create a national festival in Washington, D.C. in Fall 2010. If you are enthusiastic about science and engineering, please consider being part of the “Woodstock of Science” on the National Mall in the fall of 2010.
For information on participating in the Inaugural USA Science Festival, contact Larry Bock at firstname.lastname@example.org or 760-846-3473.