The Boston area saw an interesting new experiment last week: the Cambridge Science Festival, a nine-day, city-wide extravaganza offering hundreds of events and activities intended to boost public engagement with science and technology.
The festival—the largest devoted to science in the United States—included lectures, theatrical performances, films, laboratory open houses, telescope viewings, environmental tours, hands-on activities, and even a “genome trail” of banners and fact sheets along the streets linking MIT and Harvard. Most of the events were free and many were aimed at children and families. Some were well attended and others were not, but the festival showed that there are other ways outside of classrooms and museums to bring science closer to children and the public.
The festival’s program underscored the diversity of Cambridge research. On Tuesday, for instance, the MIT Museum hosted a “Science of Wine” event, which combined wine tasting with lectures from Harvard professors. At the same moment a few blocks away, scientists at MIT’s Plasma Science and Fusion Center gave visitors coffee and hard hats before launching a tour of their rarely seen fusion reactor. Each event generated appreciative capacity crowds of 80 and 40, respectively.
“We’re very pleased with the way the festival has been going,” said John Durant, director of the MIT Museum and executive director of the festival, late last week. “Things are really exceeding our expectations.”
Inevitably, the quality of activities varied. A technology open house at MIT’s Stata Center displayed a small number of modest exhibits, while Harvard’s observatory offered a rich program of telescope tours, space-imagery displays, and opportunities to chat with astronomers.
Events that encouraged audience participation seemed to draw better than others. A Monday evening talk about climate change—modeled on Al Gore’s documentary, An Inconvenient Truth—at a North Cambridge public library had two people in attendance. A midweek panel discussion at Harvard on the science of stem cells attracted an audience of just nine people.
“I would have expected that to be one of the most popular things,” said Durant, admitting that the stem cell session’s Wednesday afternoon time slot probably depressed turnout. Still, he added, “I hope we won’t give up doing events on topical issues like stem cells. It’s part of the job of the festival as well.”
Durant said he aims to release overall attendance figures soon. He also expects to meet soon with the festival’s sponsors—MIT, the Broad Institute, and an array of Cambridge biotech and drug companies—to see if a 2008 edition is viable. “We’ve never made a secret of the fact we’d like this to be annual,” he said.
Yearly science festivals are new to the United States, but they have become especially popular in Britain over the last two decades. One reason for this difference could be that the British Association for the Advancement of Science has backed the festival concept, while the American Association for the Advancement of Science has generally encouraged outreach that is “much more targeted at schools,” said Bruce Lewenstein, a professor of communications at Cornell University who studies the public understanding of science. He added that he sees no reason that festivals cannot succeed here.
Notably absent from the Cambridge festival’s program was a deep roster of big-name senior scientists, perhaps because the festival is so new to the city. However, it did provide a chance for younger scientists to interact with the public. “I haven’t done much of this before,” said Ben Weiss, an assistant professor in MIT’s Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, after leading a show-and-tell discussion of Moon and Mars rocks. “But it’s important for a university not to be isolated from its community.”
An audience of 35 generated a full hour of questions for Weiss, while kids gazed at the alien rocks arrayed on a table, serving as a reminder of the festival’s larger aims. “If we want to address this issue of the shortage of scientists and engineers in America, you’ve got to get people interested in science,” said Weiss. “That’s what people did for me when I was young, and I have a responsibility to do it, too.”