Reaching Out Through Science Festivals

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Emily Schuster

Imagine bikes flipping through the air outside your science center, and free runners leaping around its walls, while a spellbound crowd gathers to learn the science behind the stunts. The Manchester Science Festival (MSF), organized by the Museum of Science and Industry (MOSI) in Manchester, England, United Kingdom, incorporates events like these in order to capture the bold, creative spirit of its city, bringing science to the public in playful, surprising, and ambitious ways.

The “Learning the Basis for Participation” session, held Monday, October 21, at ASTC 2013, centered around the key question, “How can science centers serve segments of their communities that are unlikely to attend a museum?” The session addressed this question by examining the power of science festivals to reach populations that may not be attending science museums—including younger adults without children, teenagers, people from low-income communities, and underserved populations. Ben Wiehe, manager of the Science Festival Alliance at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Leonardo Alfonsi, president of the European Science Events Association (Eusea) in Onsala, Sweden, facilitated the energetic and inspiring discussion, which highlighted MSF and the Philadelphia Science Festival, organized by The Franklin Institute.

MSF, now in its seventh year, is “ever-evolving; it looks very different every year,” according to Natalie Ireland, MOSI’s head of learning and public programs. The museum partners with 50 to 60 organizations each year to produce 150 to 200 events in venues large and small, across the city and beyond, over an 11-day period. The free festival reaches 100,000 people representing a broad cross-section of the community; 25% of the audience does not ordinarily go to science museums or attend science-related events. Festival events are organized by the experience people are seeking (“family fun,” “conversations,” “art meets science,” “after dark,” “make/do/hack,” etc.) rather than by scientific discipline. The festival also features a citizen science project each year—this year’s project, #Hooked, examines the science of songs.

Ireland shared some advice for science centers interested in starting their own festivals. “Let it have a personality,” she advised. “Be bold with it. Let it have its own attitude and stamp.” She also emphasized the need for science festivals to have relevance and the importance of recruiting partners that “can bring something amazing” to the program. She recommended getting the audience involved in shaping the event. In addition, she encouraged attendees to not be afraid to take risks. “Do something unexpected,” she said. “Be experimental. Some stuff will work, some won’t. Audiences are forgiving during festivals.” MOSI is now working to incorporate the festival’s creative, experimental approach into all of its work.

As with MSF, partnerships are key to the Philadelphia Science Festival. Gerri Trooskin, science festival director at The Franklin Institute, requires the festival’s 200 partners to communicate and collaborate with one another, and also encourages them to take risks. “I tell them, ‘Try something new. If it’s a huge disaster, you can blame me,’” Trooskin said. The festival, now in its fourth year, served more than 45,000 people this year, plus an additional 45,000 at Science Day at the Ball Park, with the Philadelphia Phillies. Of the more than 100 festival events, most of which are offered for free, the most successful is the Science Carnival on the Parkway, which takes place in the streets outside the museum and served 30,000 people this year.

The Franklin initiated a “mini carnival” called Discovery Day in 2012, which was piloted in the low-income neighborhood of Hunting Park. High school and college students help to facilitate the event, and the audience is demographically similar to the neighborhood population. “Most Philadelphians don’t leave their neighborhoods or come to museums. We need to meet them where they are,” Trooskin explained.

The Franklin now sees itself as existing in three different spheres: destination, community, and digital space. “The festival has really impacted the way we’re thinking about how we serve city of Philadelphia,” said Trooskin.

Engaging the Whole Community

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Emily Schuster

On Monday, October 21, at ASTC 2013, the Cornell Lab of Ornithology and the Garibay Group led a session entitled, “Promising Practices for Community Partnerships: A Call to Support More Inclusive Approaches to Public Participation in Scientific Research.”

Session leader Jennifer Shirk of the Cornell Lab of Ornithology framed the discussion by explaining that at the conclusion of ASTC’s Communicating Climate Change (C3) project, the number one need reported by program participants was advice on how to reach more diverse audiences in citizen science projects.

Norman Porticella, also from Cornell, outlined promising practices for engaging more diverse audiences in citizen science: develop collaborative partnerships; be flexible and adaptive; build on what’s familiar; provide concrete benefits; offer genuine, equitable, and sustained personal contact with the community; and uncover and address additional context-specific barriers.

Next, Cornell’s Flisa Stevenson described her experiences working with a Latino youth theater group on the citizen science project Celebrate Urban Birds (CUBS). The theater group was not particularly interested in issues of conservation or stewardship, but felt the project supported their goals of building youth’s self esteem and interest in college, while connecting them to their own community. The youth observed birds and performed research on bird habitats and species while creating plays about birds.

Audubon New Mexico’s Carol Beidleman discussed her experiences working with Latino communities in Wenatchee, Washington. Although the local community was 30% Latino, only 5% of participants in the popular Leavenworth Spring Bird Fest were Latino. After hiring a Latino liaison, involving the Latino community in program planning, incorporating bird walks with native Spanish-speaking guides, providing bilingual materials, and advertising in Spanish-language media, the proportion of Latino participants tripled.

Finally, Cecilia Garibay of Garibay Group discussed culturally responsive evaluation approaches, which require evaluation to consider culture and context as a critical lens through which evaluators develop an evaluation, carry out data collection, and interpret results. She concluded with these remarks: “The panelists mentioned the flexibility of the program, and there’s a need to have flexibility in the evaluation process itself. It can feel uncomfortable, but we need to be willing to change.”

Combatting Anti-Science in Our Society

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

As session leader Eddie Goldstein of the Denver Museum of Nature and Science said, “This is the Association of Science-Technology Centers. We are the people who can push and nudge society in a certain direction.” That was the foundation of Monday’s Combatting Anti-Science in Our Society session. Alan Friedman of Friedman Consults and J Newlin of the Science Museum of Minnesota also presented to a vocal and passionate audience. The session consisted of short presentations from the panelists, followed by 2-3 sentence reactions from the attendees, an open discussion, and a discussion of possible next steps.

Eddie Goldstein spoke about two “aha” moments during his career. The first was when he realized that if a person doesn’t buy into the scientific process as a whole, no amount of scientific evidence will change his or her mind on an issue. The second, when he realized that there is a difference between scientific thinking and legal or political thinking. He mentioned that as science centers, it is our job to move society, bit by bit, toward scientific thinking.

J Newlin discussed the Six Americas study from Yale University that separated Americans into 6 groups regarding climate change, which are, from most to least concerned about climate change, alarmed (18%), concerned (33%), cautious (19%), disengaged (12%), doubtful (11%), and dismissive (7%). The Science Museum of Minnesota repeated the study with their visitors and found very similar results, demonstrating that education and wealth do not correlate to specific opinions about climate change, as their demographic tends to be more educated and wealthier than the general public, according to Newlin. He suggested that science centers need to start with community-based examples and action to persuade the public instead of starting with the scientific evidence.

Alan Friedman said he used to think that if you just give people the facts, they’ll use them to think more rationally and appreciate science, but found that that approach, in fact, does not work. So, he wants to change how science centers attempt to persuade science-deniers by studying how people think. He suggested using psychology and listening to how people talk, both scientists and the general public, to determine how to avoid words and phrases that will cause defenses to be raised and all arguments dismissed.

The group discussion was very lively and ended with suggestions for possible action for science centers. Suggestions included encouraging more open dialogues, being a part of the conversation and active participants on a broader scale, getting scientists on the museum’s floor to interact with visitors, and making the distinction between knowing about something and caring about something. (For example, a person can understand the rules of football, but not care what team wins or loses.) The general consensus was, as Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinion, but not their own facts,” and science centers can, by trying different techniques, slowly move society away from anti-science.

The Final Frontier? Interpreting Space for the Next Generation

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

Space exploration is changing. The shuttle program has ended, commercial companies are rapidly advancing in space flight, and rovers are some of the most recognizable “faces” for the younger generations. How do science centers present constantly evolving space science in new and interesting ways for their visitors? In Monday’s session The Final Frontier? Interpreting Space for the Next Generation, experienced panelists addressed another standing-room only crowd to answer this question. The session was lead by Whitney Owens from Great Lakes Science Center, with panelists Joseph Imholte of Science Museum of Minnesota, Diane Perlov from the California Science Center, Julian Jackson from Adler Planetarium, and Nora Normandy, from NASA. Each panelist spoke on a different facet of informal space science education and the session concluded with a question and answer portion.

To start, Owens used a mobile poll to ask what attendees’ perception of public opinion about the space program is, now that the shuttle program has ended. The overwhelming majority find that the general public think the entire space program is finished now that that shuttle has been retired. Owens also found that people think the shuttle is still flying and that it went to the moon, so there are many hurdles in space science education. We’re also moving from having astronauts as the face of space exploration to a robotic face of space exploration. She also discussed the evolution of audience needs while walking the audiences through the Great Lakes Science Center’s new NASA galleries. There are different segments of science center audiences who want different things. “Space geeks” want as much information as possible and lots of original hardware, while families with children want interactive exhibits and popular, recent missions. She recommended combining artifacts with activities and presenting both historical and future missions, and both NASA and the new commercial ventures.

Next, Nora Normandy discussed the future of space exploration and the multitude and variety of projects on which NASA is working. NASA is a lot closer to the next launch vehicles and next missions than most people realize. Even though NASA missions and priorities can change due to budget cuts and political changes, they are consistently moving forward and developing new technologies. Normandy also mentioned that the NASA Museum Alliance, the NASA media listserv, and the NASA education listserv are great resources for informal educators.

Diane Perlov discussed how to keep a permanent exhibit fresh for visitors, using the California Science Center’s recent space shuttle acquisition and upcoming expansion as an example. She emphasized the need to connect with your community when pursuing a large project. She found that there was an emotional response and and incredible depth of enthusiasm about the space shuttle and program. So how do you keep permanent exhibits interesting? Perlov recommends designing galleries around large themes that can be modified, such as their Going Places, Looking Out, and Landing galleries in their space science area. When dealing with large, unmoving objects, create evocative displays and use the building architecture to harness the emotional power of the artifacts, while integrating stories and hands-on activities. In exhibits, update the story to refresh the experience and incorporate activities in which visitors can practice and improve performance. Graphics allow for a lot of flexibility through layering, targeted content and live feeds.

Next up was Joe Imholte, who discussed how using artifacts can be challenging but awesome. He said that the most commonly available artifacts are not the most charismatic and don’t look that interesting at first glance, but can be made very interesting with the right context and activities, like the air purifier from the International Space Station that is on display at the Science Museum of Minnesota. Julian Jackson focused on using programs and social media for space science, such as daily sessions on current space news, always looking for ways to make something an event (like waving to the Cassini spacecraft as it took a picture of Earth), and providing information in a context with which visitors are familiar, such as an airport arrival/departure board for NASA mission statuses. Jackson also discussed using citizen science events and live tweeting events to engage visitors.

Big Ideas for Small Science Centers

October 22nd, 2013 - Posted in Annual Conference by Mary Mathias

On Saturday afternoon, a large crowd gathered to discuss Big Ideas for Small Science Centers. The session was led by Michele Laverty of the National Ag Science Center, with presenters Kathy Dawes of the Palouse Discovery Science Center, Lori Ann Teriesen of Children’s Science Center, Kathleen Krafft from Sciencenter, and Christopher Cable from the Durango Discovery Museum.

The session began with brief presentations from each presenter, then the group broke out into rounds of smaller, roundtable discussions. Michele Laverty focused on gaining community support for small museums. The National Ag Science Center is a science center without a building, and their programs are completely dependent on community support so that they can provide low or no cost programs for students in underserved areas. Kathy Dawes also spoke about financial concerns for small science centers, focusing on the challenges of setting up outreach programs with a limited budget, finding and storing materials, and grant and collaboration opportunities.

Christopher Cable, who is from an institution that receives no public funds, focused his roundtable discussions on increasing income at small science centers, including the current rise in demand for evening adult programs and hosted events like weddings and parties. Lori Ann Teriesen discussed what is needed to start a science center or outreach program, such as articulating your mission and vision, responding to the needs to the community, asking for help, and using available resources. Kathleen Krafft focused on exhibit development with limited funds and space. “It doesn’t take much to just jump in,” she said. Krafft discussed using ideas from other science centers and the importance of prototyping.

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