According to Marc Schulman, executive director of the USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF), “the modern era of science festivals…was kicked into gear” when the National Science Foundation (NSF) awarded a grant to four institutions in 2009 to support the creation of three science festivals modeled on the Cambridge Science Festival: one each in the San Francisco Bay area and San Diego, California; and Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.
“Science festivals are really about having a spot for science on the cultural calendar, the cultural stage,” asserts Ben Wiehe, manager of the Science Festival Alliance (SFA) at MIT. “They’re about bringing people together around science and technology and a shared identity of how science makes us who we are.” Because the best science festivals are “extremely responsive to cultural geography,” Wiehe describes his role at SFA as helping members consider what’s important to their communities and form goals around that, rather than focusing on an institution’s own outreach goals. He advises organizers to reflect on “what will give [attendees] new memorable, fresh experiences.…This is ultimately about trying to create a community-wide event. You have to see how people come together in your community, what gives them a sense of pride, how they come together for work or play.” He asks them, “What’s a good inside joke for your area?”
SFA, which grew out of the original NSF grant, now includes 63 member festivals. Many of SFA’s members started with grants from the alliance’s Science Festival Accelerator, which provides professional development and up to $10,000 in matching funds to “new or significantly expanded festival initiatives that focus on areas or communities with relatively small resource space,” Wiehe explains, noting that 2019 Accelerator applications are being accepted through December 2.
Director Jonathan Frederick says he considers the North Carolina Science Festival as erecting “a science circus tent over the state,” with events at more than 250 K–12 schools, and 150 public event partners producing more than 400 events statewide. “We’re trying to connect science to everyday life,” he says. “Our audience is the 10+ million people of North Carolina.” Public events range from urban geology hikes to skywatching at rooftop restaurants to art conservation programs focused on chemistry and biochemistry at museums.
“We have a science night program, with the ambition to be in every elementary school in the state. Each year we send out boxes of supplies [from a library of 40 activities],” Frederick says. Each school receives supplies for 10 different stations and 200 participants. “Some schools in more rural areas may only have 60 people show up; they use the rest of the supplies at the schools. Others have 600 people show up; they use our kits as a ‘starter pack’ and go from there.”
In addition, the festival includes events at university campuses and science centers, such as a science street fair at University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, and the Gravity Games sponsored by Google and Appalachian State University.
The ninth Wisconsin Science Festival (WSF) was held in October. “We have seen tremendous growth in organic interest, the number of communities interested in participating,” says Laura Heisler, cofounder and director. “The very first year, we kept it within Madison;…the expansion became organic with different organizations. Communities across Wisconsin have embraced it…We share resources, advice, and contacts.”
Rather than planning events for various communities, Heisler says her group invites organizers at the community level to share what they’re doing and the science connection, and WSF shares the events on their website and social media and provides T-shirts, a banner, and other promotional items. When they “hit a critical mass” in an area, WSF will buy local advertising to support the events.
WSF also participates in EvalFest, a five-year study of 25 science festivals to develop evaluation tools. “We’ve learned there is great value when people interact with scientists. People don’t realize how much science is in their state,” says Heisler, who is excited to see the results of the study, expected to be completed this year.
A National Stage
“There are different styles of festivals,” says USASEF’s Schulman. Many are connected to specific institutions or last for two weeks or longer with events spread across a large area, attracting local or regional audiences. “Our model is a little different…Ours attracts people from across the country…We’re trying to be like a lightning bolt. Everything you see at [the USASEF] is what you could see at others if you were go to all their events,” he contends. The sixth USASEF will be held April 23–26, 2020, in Washington, D.C.
Held every other year, the four-day USASEF features “650 organizations including nonprofits,  government agencies, colleges and universities, professional
societies, and corporations,” many of which bring chemists, engineers,
and other STEM professionals from facilities around the country. Exhibitors are arranged in “topical pavilions” such as national security, health and medical, and exploration. “We try to showcase the diversity in [science, technology, engineering, and mathematics]
STEM jobs and STEM careers. We’re trying to cover the gamut of what STEM jobs look like—including skilled trades/advanced manufacturing,” says Schulman. “We’re constantly
trying to push boundaries of what we would consider a STEM career.”
On the first day, USASEF hosts X-STEM, which Schulman describes as “a TED talk” for about 4,000 middle and high school students. “Sneak Peek Friday” is reserved for K–12 school groups, with the final two days open to the public. The 2018 festival drew
375,000 attendees on the final three days, leading Schulman to conclude “we’re at capacity…Booths have 30,000–40,000 people come through.”
After witnessing attendees struggling to reach various exhibitors due to the large crowd, USASEF will add a registration system for the 2020 festival. “It’s not good for attendees when it’s too crowded. They can’t get to what they want to see. It’s not good for organizations; they can’t talk to everyone when they’re jammed up,” Schulman says. A nominal fee will be charged for attendees older than 18; registration for attendees younger than 18 will be free.
While the impact is hard to measure, Schulman is confident science festivals are an important “response to the lack of STEM education in American public schools.” He explains, “I have a science event that gets 300,000 people…Some debate if a festival is a good investment. I tell people, if [festivals] are not working, why are 300,000 people here; 50,000 people [at other science festivals]? It does work; I just can’t give metrics as to how it works.”
This article originally appeared in the November 2019 issue of NSTA Reports, the member newspaper of the National Science Teachers Association. Each month, NSTA members receive NSTA Reports, featuring news on science education, the association, and more. Not a member? Learn how NSTA can help you become the best teacher of science you can be.