Science for the Public

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Education or entertainment? That was the major question facing attendees at the fourth annual International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC), held June 1-2 on campus at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Frustratingly, two days of discussion and debate failed to deliver a clear answer.

For years, those involved with organizing public outreach activities like science festivals and science cafes have fretted about what the goal of such efforts is (or should be). Certainly all event organizers and participants intend to provide content and information during their programs that educates audience participants. However, organizers are increasingly turning to unique cultural approaches that entertain first, and educate second, hoping to draw in bigger, more diverse audiences. Successful examples include You’re the Expert, a science-themed comedy show, and improvscience, a theater-based approach to public science engagement.

The issue for organizers then becomes how to reconcile such seemingly conflicting approaches, a theme that influenced all of the various sessions at IPSEC, from those on how to organize and execute an event, to how to recruit volunteers and market to target audiences, to evaluation and reporting.

In an attempt to directly tackle the tug of war between education and entertainment, one of the IPSEC sessions featured a mock debate between Darcy Gentleman (thirstDC) and Kishore Hari (Bay Area Science Festival), with each arguing in support of one side. Unfortunately, their facetious attempt to convince the audience as to the absolute benefits of entertainment or education was in vain, as the consensus was that the best approach was to aim for a balance between the two. However, no one seemed able to agree on what that balance actually should be, though there was agreement on the need for clearly defined goals for public science events in order to help reduce such conflict.

Attendees also sought to wrestle with this issue by considering the bigger question of the role science is trying to play in society, a point brought up by Story Collider founder Ben Lille. For some, public events are an attempt to integrate science within societal culture, much like the arts or sports. Such events therefore lean more towards entertainment, providing audience members the opportunity to interact with a scientist and thereby develop an interest in, or at least an appreciation of, science. A different viewpoint, espoused in particular by Meri Jenkins, Program Manager for the Massachusetts Cultural Council’s Adams Arts Program, holds that science is a necessary component of policy making, providing a pathway to robust economic benefits. Science events, therefore, should be seen as critical educational outlets that amplify formal efforts and provide a far-reaching societal impact.

Finding a middle ground between such extremes will undoubtedly be a challenge for those in this burgeoning field. Yet even though attendees left the conference with this debate unresolved, almost everyone was confident in the overall appropriateness and worthiness of their different approaches to putting on events. Moving forward, some organizers will continue to just try different ideas, figuring out what works and what doesn’t as they go. Others will rely on research and data to carefully construct the most impactful, efficient activities. Regardless of the methodology, any and all public events will definitely achieve the goal of bringing science to the public. And maybe that’s good enough.

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