Regrettably, I could only visit the USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo today. Any opinions expressed below are based on what I saw today. There were some interesting nuggets I discovered in my visit that I’ll post about later.
Just to get this out of the way – Francis Collins, National Institutes of Health Director, killed during his 20 minute set. I think what doesn’t come through in the videos of Collins performing is the crowd enthusiasm (unless he’s only played dead rooms). The crowd at the Expo was into it, enthusiastic, and I have to believe it helped Collins deliver his lyrics (based on older popular tunes à la Weird Al Yankovic) with brio. So Joanna, it was closer to what you posted than what I thought. And better.
While most people seemed to arrive in the afternoon, nearly all the booths and stages that I passed by were well attended throughout the day. NASA, which probably does this kind of public outreach in its sleep by now, was out in force. So were Duke, Purdue, Michigan Technological University and the University of Maryland. Physics-related stuff seemed to get the most attention/interest, with lots of robotics demonstrations (some hands-on).
I have to think the organizers are pleased with the turnout, especially if Sunday was the lesser-attended day of the two. Hopefully the Festival can take up a little more space next year, so that there’s not a several-block gap between the events on the Mall and those on Freedom and Wilson Plazas. It might also help reduce the crowding around the various stages. (That said, the Science Channel should have known they’d need a bigger tent to handle the crowd for Kari Byron. Seriously.) They’ll still need some firm asphalt to park all the mobile labs/demo spaces, so I don’t think the separation problem is completely solvable. But I do think the Expo has demonstrated it could take up the space of the National Book Festival.
I do have a quibble and a nudge about the event. The quibble is that it was not clear at the Expo that (presumably) the stage at the Natural History Museum was inside the building (nearly everything at the Expo was outside or in tents). Given the need to pass through metal detectors for most Mall buildings, I hope that can be avoided in the future.
The nudge has to do with what appears to be the target audience. As someone over the age of 18 and childless, while many of the booths covered science and engineering that I’m unfamiliar with, with rare exception it seemed like I wasn’t in the anticipated audience. It wouldn’t surprise me if the Festival was marketed exclusively to kids, as I only found out about it through my blog-related research..
I know I may not be articulating this effectively, but if I look at the science festivals in the U.K., the British Science Festival foremost among them, events are targeted at multiple audiences. I’m not as familiar with the Canadian Science and Technology Week, but it does seem to have events for different audiences (even though it’s apparently not well publicized. I’m a big fan of encouraging kids to dive into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. But I’m also a big fan of encouraging everyone to do that. Hopefully the founders can move in that general direction. I’d be interesting in trying to help make that happen.
Kudos to the organizers, sponsors, volunteers, and all the organizations that pitched in to make this possible. This needs to happen more often, and in more places.