I’m sitting here looking at two websites side-by-side. One is for the San Diego Science Festival, the other is for the World Science Festival, which takes place in New York City. I’m struck by how differently the two festivals approach the idea of a festival, and that they appear to have completely different audiences in mind.
Is it good that they use different approaches? Does it benefit the reach of science? I guess I’m wondering who they really end up reaching and how that benefits science literacy and understanding, especially among the uninitiated?
So, let’s compare…
The World Science Festival (WSF) website (and all aspects of the production of their events) is slick. It reminds me of the website for the TED Conference, a conference of ideas for the elite intelligencia. WSF promotes participant scientists as celebrities. The events are focused on “BIG” ideas in science; those that are palatable to the press and the thinking adult. Most of the talks are presented at an adult level, but there are some specifically targeted at children. The WSF is held for one week, and consists of many ticketed events held at various locations throughout Manhattan. The week ends with an outdoor street fair for children.
The San Diego Science Festival (SDSF) website is cartoonish and reminiscent of Nickelodeon. The program is idea based, and it seems to have a very integrated approach to its audience: there is something for everyone. They include a program to bring scientists to schools, as well as panels and presentations that appeal to interested adults and the professional scientist. The focus appears to be involving the attendee in the scientific thought process – their theme being ‘The Science of You’. A majority of the events are free of charge to attendees, and take place over a month over the general San Diego region. This festival also culminates in an outdoor street fair.
I see the main differences between the festivals as a focus on lifestyle. The WSF is the festival for the hip, urban, thinking person, while the SDSF is for the family. To attract the average swanky, city-dweller, you need to convince them that whatever you’re peddling is culturally cool. The average family isn’t looking for cool. They’re looking for educational, fun, and cheap!
By no means do I think one approach wrong and the other right. They are just different, and in reaching different audiences will have different effects on overall scientific literacy and understanding. Children inspired by the SDSF might go on to great careers somehow related to the sciences. Adults will pass that same inspiration on to their children. And, that is a huge point: the less fearful adults are of science, the more children will find it intriguing. Fear is definitely a learned behavior when it comes to subjects in school.
I do think that the two festivals compliment one another. It is just too bad that they are on opposite sides of the country from one another. This brings up another question: how would the festivals fare if we were to put them in the middle of the country?
Both are extremely successful festivals, attended by tens of thousands of people. But, are they reaching beyond those who already have an interest in science? The WSF attempts to break past the expected audience of science fan-boys by including scientifically inspired arts events. SDSF does include a few art events, but that kind of interdisciplinary effort is not their focus. Would the slick, city-arts events of the WSF interest or deter small-town America? Does SDSF do a better job of creating an environment that can get the average person excited about science?
I think if we take both festivals out of their repective locales, SDSF does a far better job of creating a repeatable model for science festivals that in the end attracts a broader segment of the population.
However, I do love New York, and the urbanite in me is a sucker for the stylish packaging of the WSF…