Going Where the People Are

Ben Wiehe - Monday, September 12th, 2016


2011 Philadelphia Science Festival science on jumbotron blogcrop

The Just Add Science program got underway in 2015 with a dozen sites in the US putting together plans for 2016. Throughout the past year, we’ve been experimenting with different ways to bring science experiences into settings that reach people where they already are. So far we’ve been to: major and minor league baseball games; college football games; a 5K fun run; a barbeque festival; open-air markets; a powwow; a county fair; and Veterans Day, MLK Day, and Pride parades. And we’re not done yet, with many sites looking forward to more activity coming up this fall. (Read about our plans in more detail in the Just Add Science Toolkit).

This has all been fun and exhilarating, and has cumulatively reached many tens of thousands of people, with a high potential for new audiences. But we’re also doing this to learn about our own practices as science communicators. We are excited to share reflections on these experiences over the coming months, but we have already identified a few learning points we can share now. When SFA staff asked Just Add Science sites what struck them as new about this kind of work, a few themes immediately emerged from their answers:

Just Add Science is: Preparing for a fundamentally different interaction

  • While preparing staff with content is usually the main concern for educational programs, for Just Add Science activity what staff/volunteers need more than science facts is a crash course in how to interact with diverse audiences.
  • Being out ‘in the wild’ is a lot different than dealing with self-selected science audiences. More than one group reported that Just Add Science activity required rethinking how they interact with audiences.
  • How do you draw people into a space they aren’t expecting? While some groups reported success just by being the oddity, others had the opposite experience: audiences didn’t know you would be there and with no lead-up marketing it was a challenge to excite people into participation.

Just Add Science is: Returning relevancy to your programs by taking them somewhere new. 

  • Sometimes things feel as if they are plateauing; maybe it is staff burnout, maybe the content is verging on stale, maybe the partnerships need a new approach. What better way to explore ways to grow and refresh than by taking events outside the comfort zone?
  • Festivals hold the promise of reaching new audiences, but what happens when you’re missing the mark? Taking festival activities beyond typical settings helps to introduce new people to what you do…
  • …. and spurs you to adapt so you more appropriately serve those new audiences.

Just Add Science is: Unmanageable expectations  

  • In unexpected/surprise interactions it is very difficult to manage crowd expectations. All of the advance communications of a regular festival allows you to direct attention to the things you want to emphasize, but in Just Add Science interactions you often only have a split second first impression chance to convey all of these things at once.
  • What works at the baseball game? At the BBQ festival? At the pride parade? In order to prepare your staff/volunteers/partners for success you need to understand the audience and setting first. This takes time, commitment, creativity, and skill.