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Science Festivals: Report from the Front Lines

Citizen Science Salon iconCitizen Science Salon
By Caroline Nickerson
Jun 16, 2018 12:10 AMNov 19, 2019 9:38 PM


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By Caroline Nickerson Over the past few months, members of the SciStarter team have been working around the country to share new citizen science projects at science festivals. It’s been so much fun to join others excited about science and get a chance to meet some of you! Organizing a science festival is a labor of love, fueled by the passion of the coordinators, exhibitors, and participants. The Cambridge Science Festival was one of the first of its kind in the United States. MaryCat Boyett, Manager of the Cambridge Science Festival, says the founder, director of the MIT Museum John Durant, took his inspiration from the United Kingdom’s vibrant tradition of science festivals for people of all ages. As Boyett reflects, “The Festival has since been a runaway success. 10 days and 10 nights of April later, we just finished our 12th.”

Science Cheerleaders at the Cambridge Science Festival Boyett believes that this festival is accessible because it is truly open to the public. “Though we’re blessed in Massachusetts and in the Boston area especially with a number of science events year round, people truly feel like this festival is for them,” she said. “They don’t have to wander into a university building or encounter any barriers that may exist for entry into the science world.”

Demonstrating how to use the ZomBee Kit Our team of enthusiastic citizen scientists and Science Cheerleaders headed up to MIT for the Cambridge Science Festival, where the Science Cheerleaders measured heart rates and our SciStarter team showed off the new kits for ZomBee Watch and Meet Your Mites! These kits allow for hands-on learning and are produced in a partnership with SciStarter. As Boyett reflects, “Scientists become scientists because of a deep curiosity, and this festival taps into that fundamental quality.” This thread runs throughout all of the exhibits. Many exhibitors come back every year, while others are new “cold calls” from organizers because of particularly interesting, new research or scientific achievement. There is also a rolling submission process for any entity interested in sharing their work. Many individuals come away from the Festival as citizen scientists. For example, after its designers presented at the Festival, iNaturalist had new participants and converts, with citizen scientists recording their observations regarding biodiversity on an engaging, user-friendly app. SciStarter always sees an increase in the number of new SciStarter members who find us through the Festival.

Our exhibit table, featuring our new project kits Much like MaryCat Boyett, Marc Schulman, the Festival Executive Director of the USA Science & Engineering Festival Expo, acknowledges that this event was inspired by festivals in Europe and the United Kingdom. The late, great, Larry Bock, the founder, was a biotech entrepreneur who, in his own words, hoped to “ignite the interest of U.S. students and the public in the power and potential of technology.” From its start in 2010, the Festival Expo takes place every other year in order to address workforce development by inspiring K-12 students to pursue scientific inquiry. Schulman believes that April’s event, the Festival Expo’s fifth iteration, was their smoothest to date. The entire event is free and open to the public, and under one roof in Washington, D.C., thousands of students interact with scientists and professionals in STEM fields.

The Science Cheerleaders, current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders who are also scientists and engineers One example of a successful, engaging, repeat exhibit at the Festival Expo is the Science Cheerleaders. Part of the SciStarter team and mentioned earlier in this article, the Science Cheerleaders are a group of current and former NFL and NBA cheerleaders pursuing careers in STEM. They made their debut at the USA Science & Engineering Festival in 2010. At any festival they attend, the Science Cheerleaders lead science cheers, explain the Science of Cheerleading, engage people from all walks of life in citizen science, and playfully challenge stereotypes. Schulman describes the three days of events as a “lightning strike of inspiration,” as the students encounter innovations and scientific concepts that might never have never otherwise seen with their own eyes. He views all the exhibits as a host of “once in a lifetime opportunities.” By walking from one exhibit to another, a student can speak to engineers from the State Department who designed a bulletproof car, astronauts, representatives from skilled trades, like electricians, who may be at the top of their field, and of course — the SciStarter team! In addition to these exhibits that allow for one-on-one engagement, the Festival Expo offers stage shows, which are essentially TedTalks for kids, and a number of different pavilions. The sensory overload can be dizzying, but that’s the point. Schulman and his team strive to offer a wide variety of experiences in order to reach as many students as possible, making it so there’s something for everyone to connect with at the Festival Expo. This year, SciStarter’s hands-on work with our new project kits were a new way to introduce students to citizen science and the concrete ways they could contribute to real science.

Erica Prange from SciStarter at the Festival Expo The Festival Expo continues to grow, and Schulman thinks of it as a “World’s Fair for kids.” He describes the most rewarding parts of his job as being intangible, centering on the long-term impacts on the students’ lives. As one example, he relayed a woman emailing him, saying that her son stayed at one exhibit for over two hours and now talks of nothing but becoming an engineer. Ultimately, no matter the audience, this is the goal of science festivals in general: to foster a passion for scientific inquiry. Science festivals create a unique space for the sharing of knowledge, where professionals and experts allow their curiosity to spark the same desire in others. SciStater values the outreach opportunities and relationship building provided by science festivals. Everyone who engages with our booth at a science festival is a potential citizen scientist! Want to experience it for yourself? Check out the Science Festival Alliance calendar to find a science festival near you.

Want more citizen science? Check out SciStarter’s Project Finder! With 1100+ citizen science projects spanning every field of research, task and age group, there’s something for everyone!

Caroline Nickerson is a Master of Public Policy student at American University with a focus on environmental and climate change policy. She is passionate about science communication in the policy space and engaging citizens and voters. Caroline currently serves as secretary on the national board of the Commission on Local Debates (localdebates.org), an emerging nonprofit seeking to leverage technology to make debates for local elections better and more accessible. She also works as a textbook and curriculum development consultant for the University of Florida Psychiatry Department. In her role there, she is a project manager for the Christensen Project, which honors and furthers Dr. Richard C. Christensen's legacy of advocating for homeless and under-served individuals.

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