Author: Dr. Travis Block | Category: Beyond The Bench | January 30, 2017
Science Fiesta is a large science outreach event hosted by San Antonio Science and organized primarily by graduate students. The primary goal of the event was to reach new audiences by infusing existing South Texas traditions with science and to break down cultural barriers to science engagement. The event brought together over 50 organizations to offer interactive exhibits, scientific presentations, and science-themed artwork with the traditional music, food, and dance, and over 3,000 people attended the event. The event organizers conducted surveys and recently published their results on F1000Research. In this guest post, one of the organizers Travis Block talks about his experience at the event and their findings.
Why did you organize Science Fiesta?
When I was a grad student, I was shocked by the reaction I would get when I would introduce myself as a scientist. The reaction was always the same: eyes would glaze over and people would say things like “I’m not good at science”, “that sounds complicated”, “you must be smart.” This would often end the conversation. No one wanted to hear anything else, because they assumed what I said would be too complicated. I found myself trying to convince friends, family and acquaintances that science doesn’t have to be intimidating. This got me interested in doing more science outreach, but whenever I went to science outreach events, I tended to see familiar faces. We were reaching out, but we weren’t contacting anybody new. It felt like we were preaching to the choir, so I decided – with a group of friends – to put together an event that would reach new crowds.
Growing up in San Antonio, Texas, were there a lot of opportunities for you to get into contact with science/scientists?
It is a wonderful place to grow up in and it is a city with a rich history in science, but I don’t think there were a lot of opportunities to get into contact with science/scientists. This isn’t unique to San Antonio though. I think that in general, the scientific community needs to do a lot of work on changing our culture of engagement with the public, and changing our public perception. Currently, we train scientists to communicate in technical language that is almost incomprehensible to anyone outside a narrow field. As long as we are doing this, I’m convinced there will be a major barrier between the scientific community and the rest of the public.
What sparked your interest in pursuing science?
Growing up, my father had a close friend who is still a very talented geneticist. She was a great communicator, and would always talk about the work she was doing. Inevitably we would pepper her with questions, and when she didn’t know an answer, she would think and then respond with how someone might figure out the answer. It amazed me that “I don’t know” was never an excuse. I wanted to learn how to answer questions that no one knows the answer to.
What was the overall experience during the Science Fiesta? Which new skills have you learned organizing and holding it?
Hosting Science Fiesta was an amazing experience, and extremely empowering for myself and the other graduate students who organized the event with me. It was by far the biggest thing I had ever been a part of, so it forced us all to learn a lot of leadership and management skills. We had to have a common vision and trust that everything was getting done. A big part of it was really learning to lean on others. Now that I am working as a senior scientist for a small biotech company (StemBioSys, Inc.), I definitely feel that I use skills I learned from putting together science fiesta.
What were some of the findings from the questionnaires?
The most surprising finding from our questionnaires was that almost no one at the event had ever been to a science event, yet nearly everyone said they would go to more in the future. The next most surprising finding was that whether or not respondents “learned” anything at the event seemed to have no bearing on whether they enjoyed it or would go to more in the future. To us, this showed that we were accomplishing our goal. We really wanted to break down cultural barriers to interacting with science/scientists.
Are you planning to organize another Science Fiesta in 2017?
We will be hosting the second annual Science Fiesta in April 9, 2017 at the Witte Museum in San Antonio. We will be posting the information on Facebook and Twitter as well as at www.sciencefiesta.org and www.sascience.org. In addition, for the those aged 21 and over we’ve launched a monthly science trivia night, and we will be launching the first annual STEM Hall of Fame awards banquet in the Fall.
Do you have any tips or advice for other grad students thinking of organizing an event like this?
Now is a great time to do it. It can seem intimidating to take on a big project when you are concerned about your research and grant writing and what your mentor will say, but when you are a trainee, you have a remarkably talented peer group. So if you want to take on big projects, take advantage of your peer group and tackle big problems. You cannot be apathetic if there are issues that you think need to be addressed, become proactive in whatever form you feel comfortable.
This blog was originally posted on F1000Research and was written by Travis Block, an alum of the Biomedical Engineering Ph.D. program and senior scientist at StemBioSys, Inc.
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