More than 500,000 people crowded the National Mall and downtown Washington, DC, over two days in October 2010—more people than those who attended the fall 2010 rallies organized by Glen Beck, Jon Stewart, and Steven Colbert combined—and people in 70 different locations across the nation also joined forces, swelling the ranks of participants to a million or more.
What could be of such compelling national interest, urgency, or crisis to command this level of participation? It was the USA Science and Engineering Festival ( www.usasciencefestival.org/). President Obama provided a welcoming message, and more than 500 organizations—ranging from 4-H and individual high schools and universities to government agencies and professional organizations—had a presence there. Twenty-four large corporations, media outlets, and foundations served as major sponsors.
More than just a celebration of all things scientific and technological (basketball-playing and other similarly programmed robots could be found at every turn), the festival addressed matters of both national interest and urgency. Over the past 30 years, numerous reports, including many from the scientific institution where I work (the National Academy of Sciences), have emphasized to the US government and the American people the importance of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) to the continued health, infrastructure, and prosperity of the nation, and have underscored the fact that both research and STEM education are not meeting future or even current needs. The launch of Sputnik in 1957 led to a massive response to recruit and train many more scientists and engineers. Today's society, in which science and technology pervade virtually every aspect of life, demands far greater scientific and technological literacy for all citizens.
Attendance at the Science and Engineering Festival made it clear to me that a lack of interest in science and technology by the public is not the primary issue. People at the festival were engaged, enthusiastic, and appreciative of the science learning opportunities that surrounded and welcomed them. Parents encouraged their children to partake of every opportunity and found themselves drawn to those same activities. At the exhibit tent hosted by the National Academies, more than 12,000 visitors of all ages and walks of life engaged in activities as high-tech as a simulator of the consequences of texting while driving to something as low-tech as spinning giant wheels to learn about invasive species, minerals, and pollinators ( http://dels.nas.edu/global/USASEF).
I organized and ran a table that presented visitors with puzzles to ask testable scientific questions. One puzzle comprised a cube with information on all sides but with the bottom hidden; visitors were asked to hypothesize what information was on the hidden face using evidence from the visible sides. Another asked visitors to “excavate” successive sections of a site containing fossil footprints and to propose hypotheses about what might have happened there, then to modify their hypotheses based upon the “unearthing” of subsequent evidence (NAS 1998). Over two days I witnessed firsthand participants' frustration when encountering a puzzle that seemed nearly imponderable, followed by the “a-ha moments” that came from insight (sometimes with assistance from the volunteers) about how to address the problem in a rational, strategic way and then solve it. A volunteer asked visitors as they were leaving the area what they liked about the exhibits; she told me that a young girl said that she liked the puzzles best because they made her think like a scientist, something she said never happens in her science class at school.
The many wonderful people with whom I interacted during the Science and Engineering Festival also reinforced the idea that science learning can and should happen anywhere, not just within the confines of formal education (NRC 2009, 2010). How can the life sciences community foster and abet such learning opportunities? Participation in the Science and Engineering Festival was a great way to do just that. Individual scientific societies including AIBS became actively involved in the festival to promote their specific disciplines. In addition, 15 of them (including AIBS and the National Academy of Sciences), all of which have collaborated for the past several years to confront challenges to the teaching of evolution and related subjects in public schools (Chow and Labov 2008), worked collaboratively to develop the “Evolution Thought Trail,” a series of activities with the common theme of helping visitors understand the critical contributions of evolution to their disciplines and vice versa ( www.sdbonline.org/EvoTrail.htm). Common signage at each booth and a postcard showing the location of all the booths directed festivalgoers to every collaborator. A small amount of funds allowed for the purchase and distribution of small prizes to people who visited at least six of the booths. I was pleased (and even amazed) at the number of people who claimed these prizes from making the rounds of the trail, given the large distances between the booths of collaborating organizations. It demonstrated to me how interested visitors were in evolution education despite the supposed “controversy” surrounding this area of science.
The Science Festival Alliance ( www.sciencefestivals.org) provides information about similar local events across the country. These festivals are an easy and optimal way for biologists and aspiring life scientists (e.g., through local Tri Beta chapters at colleges and universities) to invest in improving science education for large numbers of people in their communities. Individual scientists can contribute in ways such as presentations about their cutting-edge research, interviews with local media about their work, open houses to their laboratories or field sites, and disabusing people of the misconceptions they may hold about scientists and science. For example, Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and renowned musician, “strumm [ed] songs on his guitar that both delight [ed] the ears and educate [d] the mind at the National Mall stage,” according to a press release from the NIH ( www.nih.gov/news/health/Oct2010/od-22.htm). Scientists are real, accessible people, who may be talented in other disciplines, as well.
The growing popularity of science festivals is but one way to further engage the public; we also need to expand our thinking beyond traditional classrooms and laboratories. Playgrounds, parks, museums, streams, day cares, after-school programs, the Internet, video games, places of worship, partnerships with local science teachers and science clubs, and urban landscapes all abound in such learning opportunities. The limits to learning about and engaging in science are confined only by the way we, as individuals and scientific organizations and institutions, view teaching and learning.
We must remember that many of us have perhaps the best opportunity to improve science teaching and learning in ways that can have a multiplier effect: through opportunities in our own undergraduate courses, especially at the introductory level. For most of our students, these courses are actually terminal rather than introductory; they are the last chance that we have to help students learn about the processes, nature, limits, and the lifelong fascination that science can hold for inquisitive minds (students may view them as “terminal” for other reasons; see, e.g., Labov 2004). We have the ability to open the world of science to these students through the ways we engage them in our classrooms and laboratories and through imaginative techniques to help them see that science and technology are all around them. For example, assigning students projects that help campus or local government officials address scientific issues of importance, improving the preparation of future science teachers by providing them with authentic opportunities for research and other types of hands-on scientific engagement, or working with local schools so that undergraduates can help teachers improve their own understanding and appreciation of science can help students see that science is and can be everywhere they look.