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Science Festivals: Celebrations of Science Around the World

This is an extended version of an article that appeared in the September/October 2014 issue of Dimensions magazine.

A growing number of science festivals are now taking place across the world every year. In the United States alone, around four dozen new science festival initiatives have emerged in just the past five years. Each science festival is the unique product of its own cultural geography, community, and leadership. They vary dramatically in scope, but many of these vibrant celebrations of science and technology are multiday, multivenue celebrations featuring scores—or even hundreds—of events across a region.

Science centers are involved in almost every U.S. festival as either the lead organization or a major collaborator. Science festivals enjoy the flexibility to stage events anytime and anywhere to serve hard-to-reach audiences, including many that have never visited a science center. When an entire region is a potential site for programming, the numbers add up; some festivals led by science centers are now annually serving tens or hundreds of thousands of attendees. Evaluations by independent evaluator Goodman Research Group show that around two-thirds of those attendees later seek out and take part in activities they learn about at festivals, including visiting science centers.

But there is another piece to the community engagement puzzle: collaboration. The collaborative call-to-arms of a festival recharges existing relationships and energizes entirely new partnerships, including with new donors. Festivals feature many points of entry for scientists and engineers to get involved directly in public outreach. (Evaluations show that interaction with a science, technology, engineering, or math (STEM) practitioner is the greatest predictor of positive learning outcomes for attendees.) Importantly, festivals activate collaborators that have never before been considered STEM stakeholders, and these “unusual” collaborators are powerful community gatekeepers. During a festival, any place can become a STEM venue, and anyone a STEM ambassador. Examples have included restaurants, pubs, coffeehouses, and churches, as well as Major League Baseball teams; a tattoo studio in San Francisco; a billiard hall in Boston; an ice cream parlor in Omaha, Nebraska; a marching band in St. Petersburg, Florida; a kayaking center in Nantahala Gorge, North Carolina; and entire festival initiatives embedded in the Missouri State Fair and in Montana’s largest powwow.

For science centers that take the lead in organizing a massively collaborative festival, the benefits can extend even further. The relationships required to pull off a festival become an asset in their own right, and over time this places the science center at the center of a collaborative organizational structure that enables even greater regional campaigns serving the core of our collective educational mission.

Ben Wiehe, manager, the Science Festival Alliance at the MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts

In October 2013, more than 40,000 Malaysians took part in Kuala Lumpur’s first major science festival. The week-long Petrosains Science Festival was hosted by Petrosains, the Discovery Centre, and supported by the PETRONAS energy company.

The Petrosains Science Festival is intended to be a platform for government, industry, formal and informal learning institutions, and the public to come together to celebrate STEM in way that is accessible and fun. One of the main objectives of the festival is to aid the efforts of the Education Ministry of Malaysia to reverse the declining interest in science learning among students and to increase the number of STEM professionals in support of Malaysia’s goal of achieving fully developed nation status by 2020.

In line with Petrosains’ aspiration of creating wonder and inspiring people, the festival was headlined by explosive science shows, appearances by celebrities including Malaysia’s own astronaut-in-training Faiz Khaleed, giant bubble physics in the park, and technology showcases by festival partners including Google, GE, and Boeing. The festival extended Petrosains’ reach beyond its traditional audience of families with children and school groups to engage with more adults and youth.

The Petrosains Science Festival will be back in September 2014 with a holistic emphasis on music, arts, and science. Highlights for the upcoming festival include a shadow play version of the Star Wars franchise by local artists and storytellers, fun with music and dances, and circus acts that appear to defy the laws of physics.

Azura Daud, head of public relations and communications, Petrosains, the Discovery Centre, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia

In June, Hiša Eksperimentov (the House of Experiments) coordinated its sixth annual Sciencetival. The festival attracted more than 20,000 visitors, which represents 1% of the population of Slovenia. During three days, performers from eight countries presented more than 70 science shows on the bridges, streets, and squares of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Other activities included Science Cafés, lectures, interactive exhibits, busking, and the opportunity to build simple experiments under a tent in the main town square. Major festival sponsors include Cosylab, the Slovenian Research Agency, Teknoxgroup, Danfoss, LEK, Telekom Slovenije, and the City of Ljubljana.

The central attraction of this year’s Sciencetival was the Bicycle Bridge. Visitors were encouraged to challenge science and ride a bike on a cable across a river flowing through the center of Ljubljana. Two caterpillar excavators kept the cable—1 inch (2.5 cm) thick and 98 feet (30 meters) long—suspended by a force of 60,000 newtons. We mounted a bicycle with a low center of gravity on the cable and erected platforms on both river banks. An additional cable was mounted about 6.5 feet (2 meters) above the main one to support a safety harness. For safety reasons, two mountaineers helped on each of the two platforms and a boat with personnel trained in open water rescue patrolled the river below. Only adults (18 and above) were permitted to bike across after they had passed a breath alcohol test. Safety was our primary concern, and as a result around 800 visitors crossed the river in two days without incident. (A video is available here.)

Along with the festival, we coordinate an intensive five-day workshop for creating and running science shows, the International Science Performance Is Ready Event (INSPIRE). Its main mission is to empower the participants with practical and theoretical knowledge, as well as experience to become (better) science show creators and/or performers. Participants work in groups of three to produce a science show and then present it in front of a real audience at the Sciencetival. Topics addressed during the workshop include choosing a title for the show, developing content, setting the storyline, selecting experiments, using humor, maintaining eye contact, being mindful of one’s body movements, choosing volunteers, and going off script.

The Sciencetival aligns with Hiša Eksperimentov’s mission to inspire curiosity and trigger a passion for learning. We avoid the “Science is fun” motto. Science isn’t fun. It is a difficult process of acquiring knowledge, having many doubts, and learning through mistakes. Giving kids a false signal that science is fun might lead to disappointment; some might choose science for their studies and later find out that it is interesting but tough work.

Instead, why not inspire curiosity and make learning more rewarding? Once we get young people interested in acquiring new knowledge, asking questions, and starting the quest for the answers, we will accomplish our goal. Some of them might even say, “This is fun!”

Miha Kos, director, Hiša Eksperimentov (the House of Experiments), Ljubljana, Slovenia

“Just don’t go broke or insane.” That was the mantra we adopted here at Morehead Planetarium and Science Center at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, when we decided to launch the nation’s first-ever statewide science festival in 2010.

Each April, we produce the North Carolina Science Festival, a 17-day event that includes a suite of K–12 programs in conjunction with hundreds of public science events. Currently, we offer a science kit to more than 100 elementary schools across the state to throw science parties. We facilitate close to 75 scientist visits to middle schools around the state, and we have just created a debate/deliberation–style curriculum for high schoolers to grapple with hot topics in science like fracking and nuclear energy. This past year, we had more than 330,000 people participate in events in 95 of North Carolina’s 100 counties. Sponsors include our festival champion, Time Warner Cable.

There’s an incredible grassroots component to festival organizing. Our partners are critical to our success, and they take great pride and ownership in producing festival events. Many of them participate for different reasons. Some see getting involved as a way to give back to their local community. For others, it’s a chance to show off new or exciting programs. According to our multiyear data, 50% of our partners reported receiving follow-up visits or enrollment from festival attendees, 55% reported forging new professional collaborations, 64% reported learning new strategies for communicating with the public, and 87% reported having more opportunities to communicate with the public.

By working alongside our partners and other festivals across the nation, our festival has become a catalyst for innovative programs and initiatives. For example, in 2013, we worked with thought leaders from throughout North Carolina to launch a daylong Statewide Science Summit. The summit was designed to start the conversation about fostering a better ecosystem for science in North Carolina, from getting more students into the STEM pipeline, to producing and retaining quality STEM teachers, to engaging the public and decision makers to support STEM, to helping researchers and companies move their ideas into commercial products and the marketplace.

The attendees then deliberated and decided on five strategies to address those challenges:

1. Develop programs that match students to science industry experience.
2. Provide North Carolina teachers with opportunities for substantive professional development.
3. Partner with the North Carolina Grassroots Science Museums Collaborative.
4. Create an entrepreneurial co-laboratory.
5. Create a category of state matching grant awards for companies.

After the summit, science festival staff hosted regional science summits to get local stakeholders engaged in the discussion. The summit also served as the springboard for the first-ever North Carolina STEM ScoreCard.

Heading into our fifth festival, we continue to set audacious goals. We’re shooting for 400,000 participants in 2015 and 1 million by 2020. In coming years, we aim to have a presence in every K–12 school in the state, potentially through a mass participation event. And while we continue to remind ourselves that this is a science outreach marathon and not a science sprint, we do wonder sometimes if we’re still sane. But that’s half the fun.

Jonathan Frederick, director, North Carolina Science Festival, Morehouse Planetarium and Science Center, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill

The Philadelphia Science Festival (PSF) is an annual, nine-day celebration of STEM organized by the Franklin Institute and created by more than 200 of Philadelphia’s scientific, cultural, and educational institutions. Launched in April 2011, PSF annually attracts more than 85,000 participants to more than 100 events at venues across Philadelphia and five surrounding counties.

With events taking place at urban farms, graveyards, laboratories, street corners, brewpubs, museums, libraries, and beyond, PSF shatters expectations for STEM learning and creates a social buzz. Festival activities include nature walks, astronomical observing, storytelling, panel discussions, science-infused comedy, and performances that allow participants to interact with STEM professionals, educators, and others who make STEM approachable.

A festival highlight is the Science Carnival on the Parkway, which in 2014 drew 40,000 people to engage with STEM professionals through 175 activities. In this city where more than a quarter of the population lives in poverty, almost half of PSF events are held in neighborhoods reaching nontraditional museum visitors.

The Franklin Institute is one of many organizations in Philadelphia providing STEM learning opportunities in underserved communities. But before the festival, the local STEM community did not have a robust tradition of working together toward shared goals. To encourage collaboration, we made it clear that every PSF event must be a joint effort of at least two organizations.

Especially during the first year, partners had concerns about the time, energy, and resources they would need to invest in collaborations. We listened to and addressed their concerns and questions in real time, which fostered a sense of trust. We repeatedly reminded the group of core collaborators that festival planning was an experiment and for the process to improve and develop year over year, we needed to have a culture of openness and feedback. After the first festival, we were able to develop a more comprehensive partnership guide and other resources to facilitate regular and open communication, as well as to set expectations and roles early.

In addition, National Science Foundation support during the first two years allowed us to assume more financial risk, which eased partners’ uncertainties about joining what then seemed like a longshot venture. Now, many partner institutions report that working with others is one of their favorite aspects of the festival, and that they have made new connections through the festival that help them throughout the year.

Thanks to a renewed culture of collaboration, PSF events are gateways to rich networks of STEM resources in Philadelphia and beyond.

Gerri Trooskin, director of strategic partnerships, the Franklin Institute, Philadelphia

Singapore is en route to becoming the world’s first smart nation. To realize this vision, we must ensure that STEM continues to pique people’s interest and evoke a sense of wonder. For 14 years, Science Centre Singapore (SCS), and the Agency for Science, Technology, and Research (A*STAR) have galvanized like-minded partners to organize the Singapore Science Festival (SSF), supported by the Ministry of Education.

Although the Singapore school curriculum provides students with a strong foundation in STEM subjects, and there is a relatively high student participation rate in STEM across all levels, we see a trend of students shying away from the hard sciences, especially engineering. Local surveys have indicated that students enjoy learning STEM subjects and feel it is important to do well in them. However, a relatively lower percentage of students feels well informed about STEM careers or perceives them as prestigious careers that pay well. SSF therefore wants to promote STEM-related careers and celebrate how STEM has helped Singapore become a developed country in less than 50 years. As a tiny tropical island with no natural resources, we would not be able to survive the keen competition in the global village without STEM.

For 2014, SSF’s bigger-and-better approach meant we had more than 160,000 attendees at 50 events across 17 days in July and August, organized by more than 50 partners representing local attractions, education institutions, and research industries. To make our message stand out, we highlighted presentations by dynamic scientists and science educators. For the third year, we hosted the presenter of the (U.K.) Royal Institution’s Christmas lecture. We included shows that combined science education with circus tricks or with hip hop music and dance. Our research and design showcase highlighted exciting discoveries made in Singapore and beyond. A new feature this year was a family-friendly science musical I wrote entitled Sex Cells, which told the story of how fertilization leads to the birth of a baby.

By focusing on the myriad faces behind some of the most fascinating discoveries showcased at the festival, we aimed to inject some needed rock-star appeal into STEM, while sharing the message of how STEM gives us the power to create new possibilities. In time, we hope this effort will fuel Singapore’s drive toward becoming the world’s first smart nation.

TM Lim, CEO, Science Centre Singapore; co-chairman, Singapore Science Festival

Since 2006, the Planetarium Science Center (PSC) at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina (BA), Alexandria, Egypt, has been organizing the Science Festivity every April under a different overarching theme. We even held the festival in 2011, just three months after Egypt’s revolution, while facing the challenges of a very limited budget and the need to guarantee the security of our attendees at outdoor activities.

The focal point of the two-day festival is the Science Village, composed of kiosks with interactive activities, set up on the BA’s plaza. The PSC’s partners, including cultural centers, international schools, and charity organizations in Alexandria, host additional events on their premises. About 4,500 people attended the festival in 2014.

The goal of the Science Festivity is to help youth, ages 6–18, develop 21st-century skills, with a focus on scientific knowledge, creativity, critical thinking, problem solving, and teamwork. One long-term objective is to encourage students to study and work in scientific fields because Egypt, like many developing countries, has a shortage of people pursuing careers in science. Another goal is to figure out solutions to preserve the environment. For example, the 2014 festival featured workshops on important local environmental issues, including paper recycling, energy conservation practices, and deforestation.

The PSC is initiating a Science Festival Network in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, which will allow members to share knowledge, resources, and contacts and enhance all festivals in the region. So far, Egypt, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and the United Arab Emirates are participating in the network. The main challenges facing science festival organizers in the MENA region are, of course, financial constraints, plus the need to popularize the philosophy of informal education itself, which is still in its first steps in the region.

Ayman Elsayed, deputy director, Planetarium Science Center, Bibliotheca Alexandrina, Alexandria, Egypt


Additional Science Festivals in North America

(Click here for an up-to-date list of science festivals in North America from the Science Festival Alliance.)

Cambridge Science Festival
April 18–27, 2014
Led by the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Massachusetts, this festival tries out innovative concepts each year, featuring 150 events over nine days. For its eighth year this included a new Science Block Party and art/science displays in the storefronts of area businesses.

May 24–25, 2014
ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum in Ashland, Oregon, launched Tinkerfest in 2013, using a two-day festival to showcase the creativity and skills of people living in the area.

Eureka! Festival
June 13–15, 2014
With the Montreal Science Centre in Quebec acting as a leading partner, the 2014 edition of Eureka! Festival received more than 100,000 attendees for its biggest year ever.

7 Days of STEM
September 15–21, 2014
This year the staff of Oh WOW! in Youngstown, Ohio, is growing a one-day celebration into a seven-day, multivenue festival, and have found that the format has fired up many new community collaborators.

Virginia Science Festival
October 4–11, 2014
Staff at the Science Museum of Western Virginia started out looking to serve the communities around their facility in Roanoke, and have ended up launching a statewide festival. They went are working hard to bring their new tagline to life: Virginia is for Science Lovers.

Colorado Springs Science Festival
October 11–19, 2014
While working toward opening a new museum facility, the Colorado Springs Science Center Project has engaged funders, partners, and the community with an eight-day festival featuring scores of events throughout the area.

Dayton Regional Science Festival
October 23–26, 2014
Led by the Boonshoft Museum of Discovery, Dayton Ohio, this festival has partnered with dozens of collaborators, including existing non-science festivals in the area, to celebrate their Ignite Innovation theme.

Super Science Weekend: New York Capital Region Festival
November 7–9, 2014
Silly Science Sunday regularly draws crowds seeking science engagement hosted out of the Museum of Innovation and Science (miSci), Schenectady, New York, but in 2014, the museum is set to expand the event to three days.

Compiled by Julie Fooshee, coordinator, Science Festival Alliance at the MIT Museum, Cambridge, Massachusetts

About the image: Miha Kos, director of Hiša Eksperimentov, opens the Sciencetival by cycling over a river flowing through the center of Ljubljana, the capital of Slovenia. Photo by Domen Pal

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