Good News: Science Festivals are an Effective Outreach Tool

(Image Credit: Dan MacDonald)

Dozens of science festivals are held around the world every year, with each festival often consisting of multiple events scattered across time and space. Hundreds, if not thousands, of people pour their time, money and effort into arranging these events and – according to a new report – their investment is paying off.

The Science Festival Alliance (SFA) hired an outside firm, Goodman Research Group (GRG), to conduct a three-year evaluation of four science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) festivals in the U.S., with the goal of determining how effective these festivals were as science outreach tools. An overview of the findings was released April 30.

GRG evaluated the impact of the Cambridge Science Festival and San Diego Festival of Science and Engineering in 2010, 2011 and 2012, as well as the impact of the Philadelphia Science Festival and Bay Area Science Festival in 2011 and 2012. Attendance at the festivals ranged from approximately 40,000 to more than 124,000.

Impact on Attendees

Overall, the SFA report states that festival attendees “reported becoming more interested in science, learning something new about science, experiencing science learning as more fun and enjoyable, and feeling more connected to the science happening in their cities.” And the numbers back that up, with 75 percent of attendees surveyed in 2011 and 2012 reporting that events “made science learning fun” and 60 percent reporting an “increased interest in science.”

In its 2011 survey of attendees, GRG also found that 79 percent of attendees planned to “look for information on something they learned at the festival.” And most of them appear to have followed through. In a 2012 survey of 277 returning attendees, 69 percent said they actually had looked up more information on something they’d learned the previous year.

A question that occasionally crops up with regard to science festivals is whether their value is limited because they are “preaching to the converted” – meaning that, while the festivals are designed to get people interested in science, only people who are already interested in science attend the festivals.

These findings indicate that the festivals do make a difference. They make people more interested in science, regardless of what people thought before attending a festival. Further, GRG found that 20 percent of festival attendees who interacted with “STEM practitioners” at a festival had never done so before. That sort of human, one-on-one interaction is an excellent means of engaging people on any issue, including science.

Importance of Scientists

The importance of human interaction was reflected in GRG’s findings, which show that “attendees who intermingled with STEM practitioners at a festival had more fun, were more interested, and learned more than attendees who did not interact with a scientist.” In other words, it is important for scientists to be involved.

For example, 40 percent of festival attendees who did not interact with a scientist reported an increased interest in science. That number climbs above 50 percent for those who reported a single interaction with a scientist – and to just over 70 percent for those who had three types of interactions with a scientist.

Further, there appears to be some benefit for scientists as well, with 75 percent of scientists who exhibited or presented at the festivals reporting “increased confidence interacting with public audiences.” And they plan to find ways to use that increased confidence. 85 percent of scientists who took part in science festivals were “highly likely” to take part in informal science education efforts over the following year.

Questions (Update: answers below)

The SFA report is interesting, but I have some additional questions. For example, how did GRG define “STEM practitioner”? Does it include science teachers and undergraduates, as well as full-time bench scientists? I ask because I’d like to know how large a pool of STEM practitioners science festivals can draw from.

And, because science festivals include a wide array of events, I would like to see more data on which types of events were most effective for reaching different audiences. For example, what events got teens excited about science? What about younger kids? Did those events also get adults excited about science? Were there specific subject areas that were particularly interesting to different audiences?

Lastly, but perhaps most importantly, what was GRG’s methodology? How many people were surveyed overall? How many each year? How many at each festival? I’m a curious guy.

I’ve contacted SFA to see if they can provide additional information, and will update this post if they send it.

Note: Thanks to Russ Campbell for bringing this report to my attention.

UPDATE (May 3): I did a brief Q&A (via email) with GRG’s Colleen Manning.

Communication Breakdown: What was GRG’s methodology? Did GRG establish any sort of baseline for its surveys?

Manning: Our design [consisted of] annual cross-sectional surveys at randomly sampled, as well as director-selected, events. Attendees self-reported outcomes; we did not measure change in individual respondents.

CB: How did GRG define “STEM practitioner”?

Manning: “STEM practitioner” includes formal and informal science educators, university science professors, science undergraduates/graduate students, industrial and academic scientists, and science journalists.

CB: Which types of events were most effective for reaching different audiences?

Manning: We’re just beginning to look at the effects of different types of events, beyond general comparisons we made between expos and all other types of events. This has involved coming up with a classification of events, where we’ve arrived at:  expos, pub events, performing arts events, conversations and hands-on events. This classification will likely be refined as more science festival innovations emerge. So, stay tuned for more on this.

Note: I’ve also been told that SFA will be posting the full, final report on its site soon.


4 thoughts on “Good News: Science Festivals are an Effective Outreach Tool

  1. Thanks, Ship, for bringing attention to this study – Keep us posted on what you learn from SFA regarding your questions. I’m curious about the scalability of impact – these festivals tend to be one-offs, i.e. one day or weekend. We’ve done things differently in NC with a 2 week, 180+ venue distributed science festival. I wonder how impact changes (on both attendees and practitioners) in that sort of model.


  2. Good stuff, Matt! As an FYI, the NC Science Festival is part of the Science Festival Alliance and our team is happy to share our evaluation strategies, methodology and results. Our external evaluator, Dr. Karen Peterman, is based out of Durham, NC and has worked with GRG and the SFA. She is an invaluable collaborator and helps us grapple with a bazillion questions about our impacts. We’re happy to help track down answers to your questions if we can be of assistance. — Cheers, Jonathan ps — Thanks, Holly, for directing me to this piece!


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