Thursday, September 26, 2013

Day 137 - Attending the Wisconsin Science Festival

I have never been to a science festival. For those that are unfamiliar with the concept of a science festival, the events are basically a celebration and promotion of all things science that typically include demonstrations, interactive displays, and presentations about the role of science in our lives.  As a relatively recent phenomenon in the United States, opportunities to attend such an event have been very limited during my life. In fact, the first science festivals didn’t begin appearing in the United States until the end of the 1990s, and it wasn’t until recently statewide science festivals began organizing in areas throughout the country.

As someone interested in science and technology, I have wanted to attend a science festival since I first became aware of their existence some years ago. However, it wasn’t until recently that an opportunity to attend a science festival became possible in my area of the country. With the formation of the Wisconsin Science Festival over the past few years, I finally had a chance to experience a science festival for the first time. Luckily, the statewide science festival is largely centered on the University of Wisconsin in my hometown of Madison, which meant there was ample opportunity to experience a science festival for the first time during my “I have never...” year. As a result, I made plans to attend one of the science festival’s main presentations this evening at the local Institutes for Discovery on the University of Wisconsin campus, and I prepared for what I knew would be an insightful and educational experience


Although I was still feeling quite ill from the virus I caught a few days ago, I pulled myself together this evening and headed to the science festival with Rachael after the end of her workday. When we arrived at the Institutes for Discovery facility, we were a little disappointed to find many of the presentations and demonstrations from earlier in the day had already closed for the day. In response, we made our way to the presentation hall nearly 30 minutes early for the night’s presentation, “Smart is the New Sexy” with NPR’s Ira Flatow. To my surprise, nearly every seat in the hall was occupied when we entered the room. Caught off guard by the number of people already in attendance, Rachael and I paused near the room’s entrance and scanned the crowd for two open chairs. Realizing our vantage point wasn’t advancing our efforts, we began walking toward the back of the hall in search of open seats. Eventually, our path led us to two chairs off of the center aisle some five rows from the back of the room. Although it wasn’t an ideal position by any means, I was happy to have a place to sit for what was clearly going to be a busy event.

An insightful presentation from Bucky...
Over the next 20 minutes people continued streaming into the hall until the festival crew was forced to expand seating to the exterior of the room. Fortunately, the back wall of the room was revealed to be collapsible, which opened up the space and permitted dozens more people to be a part of the night’s event. With minutes left before the event was scheduled to begin, we watched as activity began to stir on the stage and final adjustments were made for the presentation. As an added bonus to the night’s event, Bucky Badger decided to stop by and lend a hand during the process, which made for some light humor before the main event commenced.

With everything in order and the crowd ready to soak up the experience, the main presentation began as scheduled this evening. Before Ira Flatow took the stage, Bassam Shakhashiri, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, spoke to the audience for a brief period. Although he was only designated to provide an introduction for Ira, Professor Shakhashiri did so in an instructive and entertaining fashion, which is a trademark of his science classes and presentations. During Professor Shakhashiri’s introduction, he focused on the importance of science in our everyday lives and the importance of making science a priority in society and individual education. As he stated, perspective and focus are essential to understanding the role of science in our lives and to maintain quality science education throughout our school systems. To reinforce his point, Professor Shakhashiri broke down the individual components of successful science education as represented by three beakers of clear fluids. As he mixed the fluids together in a larger beaker, he spoke about how typical components of science education are easy to overlook as important, but that when they are combined they can create some amazing results. With that remark he poured the last of the three fluids into the larger beaker, which caused the fluid to turn yellow briefly before rapidly being consumed by a veil of purple.

Professor Shakhashiri continued with his speech as the mixture stirred in the beaker on the stage. Drawing attention back to the importance of focus in understanding the importance of science education and making it a long-term success, the crowd focused on his words until a sudden change in chemical concoction snapped everyone’s eyes back to the beaker of fluid. Gasps projected from the crowd as we watched the purple fluid slowly transition back to its original yellow color momentarily before snapping back to a deep shade of purple seconds later. This pattern continued back and forth for some time as Professor Shakhashiri proceeded with his discussion of focus, acting as though he was oblivious to the dramatic, oscillating change of color in the beaker of chemicals on the stage. Eventually, he drew his eyes back to the beaker long enough to observe the change himself, which led him to his final point in the first part of his introduction. Professor Shakhashiri was concise in making his final point that the change in the chemicals was only known because of the focus the audience placed on the mixture continuously, and that science, like the mixture, drives curiosity and is only understood if such focus is a part of our society.

Following his initial demonstration, Professor Shakhashiri emphasized his point with one experiment involving a book containing a flame. His secondary demonstration was brief in comparison to the first, but it was equally mesmerizing and created an equally memorable message. With the lasting impact of Professor Shakhashiri’s message still resonating through the hall, he then moved to introduce Ira Flatow as the event’s main presenter. The announcement sent the crowd into a round of steady applause as Ira took the stage and began his “Smart is the New Sexy” presentation.

A book on fire!

Initially, Ira focused on the crumbling support for science in education and in the media, calling specific attention to the efforts of some groups to undermine proven science in education and to the recent elimination of science positions in the media. At first, I was worried Ira’s talk would focus exclusively on how to correct these trends, but I was happy to see his presentation promptly transition to focus on the rise of science in pop culture. It quickly became clear that the presentation intended to show the power and relevance of science in modern American culture despite efforts to undermine science in the formalized areas of our society. As Ira put it, “there is an obvious hunger for science in our society, and at a time when it is becoming more relevant and popular than ever before, the old forums for science and mathematics are turning away from the trends.”

Building on that theme, Ira called out specific examples of real science appearing in television comedies and dramas, in films, and across internet forums and social media. He provided obvious examples of the relevance of science in our modern world and was quick to point out the themes in independent science education crossing the nation. Specifically, he cited the science festival occurring around us and the dozens more that are occurring throughout the country during the same period. As he pointed out, the United States didn’t have a single large scale science festival 15 years ago, and now the nation boasts more than 20 annual statewide festivals that bring thousands of people together to learn and share knowledge in the field of science. As I listened, it was hard to refute anything Ira said in the face of the facts. There was no disputing science was in fashion and that Ira’s concept of “smart is the new sexy” likely held some merit in our society.

Ira Flatow

As Ira brought his presentation to a close, he encouraged everyone in the audience to seek and learn science and to embrace the role of science in our lives. He stated it was up to each individual to redefine our stereotypes of scientists, engineers, and mathematicians to encompass the growing of people that are embracing the sciences in new, unfamiliar ways. Ira then asked the audience to make the most of the Wisconsin Science festival before drawing his presentation to a close. With that, Rachael and I took a few minutes to hang out in the hall before making our way toward the exit.

As we walked back to our car we talked about the insight and unique experiences that came with our first trip to a science festival. Although we hadn’t been able to experience the breadth of displays and demonstrations the festival had to offer, we quickly concluded presentation at tonight’s event was well worth making the time to attend. The perspective and knowledge gained from taking a few hours of our time to be among the sciences more than satisfied our curiosity and exposed us to some new experiences we likely wouldn’t have gained anywhere else. As a result, I can easily say I would make time to attend a science festival again. While some might be hesitant to believe it, the reality is Ira Flatow had it right. Science is constant part of our everyday life, and the benefits it brings to people have made science a growing part of our pop culture. The era of the nerd is upon us, and I, for one, will be happy to join the revolution.

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