By Emily Ongstad, SWE-MAL Secretary and Newsletter Editor
This was the second in what promises to be many years that Virginia has held a state-wide science festival. One of few states in the US to host such a far-reaching festival, Virginia’s science festival received the initial seed money from the Science Festival Alliance in Cambridge, MA. In 2013, the alliance provided a matching grant to the Science Museum of Western Virginia in Roanoke, VA. Beyond this grant money, many local organizations and businesses have sponsored the events that occur in this multi-day festival. Originally planned to be a festival local to southwest Virginia, it has expanded to include many other cities throughout the state, and spans many days and evenings.
Using Social Media
This year, I joined the planning committee for the Science Festival in Roanoke, which is the planning center. I extended my services as the Social Media Coordinator on the marketing team for the festival. For weeks beforehand and throughout the festival, my job was to get people interested in science by sharing cool and interesting science stories, and provide as much information through social media on the activities of the festival as possible.
Offering Many Activities
The events and activities involved in this festival are extensive. Multiple locations in downtown Roanoke hosted a variety of exhibitors. The Science Museum of Western Virginia, which had free admission for the day, had weather and traffic exhibits, basic science lab experiments, plastinated human organs, information about sustainable gardening and food, animals from the Mill Mountain Zoo, and Carilion Clinic healthcare exhibits. For two years, NASA has brought in a big inflatable Earth Dome, under which scientists from NASA Langley guided children in building satellite shapes from Legos and testing aircraft designs. Outdoor exhibits included a sailplane and drone flying exhibits. The Virginia Museum of Transportation was also free to the public on this day, where you could browse automobiles, learn about traffic signals, play with RC vehicles, and tour a steam-powered locomotive. Jefferson College of Health Sciences had many exhibits on surgery and healthcare, while the Taubman Museum of Art held exhibits from the Virginia Tech Carilion Research Institute on heart and brain health.
Hosting Events at Multiple Locations
Virginia Tech in Blacksburg hosts a festival on the university campus that is comparable in size to that featured in Roanoke. The Virginia Tech campus hosted many groups from the university itself, as well as area universities and schools. Demonstrations included a robot parade, fossil preparation, structures built from gumdrops and toothpicks, a live insect exhibit and a “Virus Tracker” game that demonstrates how disease outbreaks work.
The day of the festival, I explored the exhibits in Roanoke for the purpose of sharing the events on social media. The experience turned out to be extremely rewarding, as most of the exhibitors encouraged me to interact even though I was just there to take pictures. It was exciting to see the visitors get involved and excited about science and engineering. Additionally, all of the festival volunteers I chatted with that day were equally enthusiastic.
Encouraging Interest in STEM
The goal of festivals of this kind are to get youngsters interested in STEM at an early age, hopefully encouraging them to stay involved and pursue careers in these fields. The US continues to lag behind other developed nations in STEM fields, so activities that encourage involvement early are especially beneficial.
The Virginia Science Festival is certainly gaining success in terms of increasing size each year, both in terms of exhibitors and attendees, but it will be truly interesting to see whether such a festival can impact outcome in terms of influencing our STEM workforce.
There are several states that host state-wide or large science and engineering festivals, many of which are organized by universities. Some are recurring. If you’re interested in getting involved in your local science festival, the following is a list of the states that currently host them, and some states have multiple: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Connecticut, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maine, Massachusetts, Montana, Michigan, Missouri, Nebraska, Nevada, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Texas, Washington, DC, Wyoming.