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Who Do Science Festivals Reach?

by Kirsten Sanford, Apr 24 2009

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…

World Science Festival Logo

World Science Festival Logo

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.

San Diego Science Festival Logo

San Diego Science Festival Logo

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…

8 Responses to “Who Do Science Festivals Reach?”

  1. Susan says:

    Interesting analysis. I expected you to discuss the question of what good it does to reach adults … but you went a completely different direction. Both festivals sound like positive experiences … but tell me, do these kinds of events have measurable results on scientific literacy or engagement of adults?

  2. Yuk says:

    I’m all for the idea of a family oriented science festival. I don’t think you can easily measure the effects of either festival. Certainly not immediately. I would think that the effect would be cumulative over years, with the end result being a higher interest in science and technologies in education and careers.

    As for bringing the festivals to the middle of the country, I live in Minnesota and would love to see big science festivals like these show up around here. There is a huge arts base in the upper midwest and, we are a literary center. I’d love the opportunity to expose my family, specifically my kids, to a science festival like the SDSF and the WSF.

  3. Anthony O'Neal says:

    Well the fairs are just trying to reach the largest audience. Having two fairs in the middle of the country in the same place would probably reach much less people totally, simply because they are limited by the “Too far to bother driving” factor. And you’d have them covering the same, less populated area instead of the two most densely populated areas in the nation.

  4. That would only make sense if you expected so many people from NYC or LA to attend that you couldn’t get those numbers in, say, Chicago, St. Louis, or Dallas. But midwestern cities of that size would probably produce just as many attendees as NYC or LA.

  5. Larry Bock says:

    Our goal for the San Diego Science Festival was to reinvigorate the interest of young people in the sciences. To accomplish this we felt we had to get the parents excited as well.

    Our tactics were fourfold

    Create a set of science role models/mentors in San Diego.
    Highlight how science impacts people’s daily lives
    Celebrate what is unique about science in San Diego
    Unite the entire San Diego community through a grassroots collaborative showcase event.

    Our finale event in Balboa Park attracted 100,000 people, far more than e expected for an inaugural event.

    All 500 event except for trree were free to the public. The only events that had charges were to cover costs of food.

    Larry Bock
    Festival Organizer
    San Diego Science Festival

  6. Mastriani says:

    Regardless these festivals, the facts in evidence stand against “science reach”.

    The FT reported from a just released Harvard comparison study; American high school students rank 25th in math, 24th in science. The problem is, this wasn’t against the primary developed countries of the G20, it was against an unnamed “top 30″ … which sounds as though they had to skew the baseline just so American “students” could show up in relevant statistics.

    America is the epitome of science fail. Pass the offering plate please, tithes are greater minds. (The primary cause ~ NCLB … laff)

  7. Sunny says:

    Here’s a Canadian voice on how to reach those in between the coast. The upcoming science festival at Perimeter Institute – Quantum to Cosmos Festival is an onsite and live on-line festival. Even the school trips and exhibits will be offered online. I think that this will spread science education even further. All events are completely free.

  8. Sunny says:

    Sorry forgot to add that its free to the world not just to Canada