Reaching Out Through Science Festivals

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.