The Philadelphia Science Festival starts tonight, a nine-day shindig featuring more than 100 events — some more highbrow than others — to showcase the city’s scientific community in a fun setting. (The festival’s calendar is helpfully color-coded to direct you to the best events for kids, adults, families, and educators.)
Gerri Trooskin, the festival’s director, and Josette Hammerstone, the festival’s production manager, talked with Philly Mag about how to make science entertaining, the role of science in Philadelphia, and how to overcome modern skepticism of science and its conclusions.
The Philadelphia Science Festival has been around a few years (since 2011). How does science fit into a festival setting?
Gerri: The festival is all about celebrating science. So, when we first got started, we realized that people, you know, couldn’t even imagine what it would look like to have a festival around science. We celebrate food, we celebrate beer, we celebrate wine, we celebrate art, we celebrate film. But we don’t ever talk about the science that makes it all possible. And that’s what the Science Festival is all about. It’s about making sure that everything we do is fun and engaging and interactive and has a hands-on component. So that way people can really experiment with the science that goes on in this town on a regular basis.
Do you think Philadelphians are generally aware of how vast the scientific community is here?
Gerri: We hope that the festival helps a little bit. Or at least, every year we chip away a little bit more at any stigma associated with science, and that every year people become a little bit more aware of the fact that we have so many scientists living in this region and working in this region and that we are a city of eds-and-meds in so many ways.
“Stigma.” That’s a striking word to use. Do you think there’s a stigma associated with science in this town?
Gerri: I don’t know if it’s just in this town. We hear it all the time, right? That kids maybe don’t think science is fun or engaging or for them. And we’re based at the Franklin Institute where we see every day on the floor of the museum everyone having a great time with science. And, you know, I think that we bring that spirit into everything that happens during the festival and that when people are here, they don’t think that, “Eh, science. It’s no fun!” They think, “This is great!” and “How cool is that!” and “Look at that great explosion! That was awesome” And during the festival, we do that same kind of programming, but for whichever audience we’re aiming to serve. Unfortunately, we know that people don’t always think of science as their go-to. We’re hoping that every year it gets a little bit better.
In addition to the so-called stigma, I think probably one of the challenges you might face here involves the state of Philadelphia’s schools. How does the scientific community replenish itself here and appeal to the city when it faces the problems that every other institution in the city faces in terms of poverty and lack of education?
Gerri: We work with the school district quite a bit. We have about nine free educator workshops over the course of the festival all designed for teachers to do professional development so they can learn about how to incorporate different kinds of inquiry-based learning and STEM curriculum into the classroom. But beyond that, we have events going on in many neighborhoods throughout the city. Our goal is to make sure that we meet people where they are, and for so many people in the city, it’s meeting people in their neighborhoods.
We have 26 astronomy night locations across the region, many of which are taking place in neighborhoods that aren’t super accessible via public transportation to Center City. We have 16 neighborhood science after-school programs at branch libraries throughout the city. Each one of those has between 4 and 8 hands-on activities provided by our many partner organizations, again, designed to ensure that there’s a high-quality, fun, interactive, program happening close to where people live.
Talk a little bit about what kind of events will be happening and what kind of science they’ll be featuring.
Josette: Oh my goodness. Well, we have over 108 events this year on our calendar. So, it really runs the gamut. We have, like Gerri said, our astronomy night. Our kickoff party is a science carnival here at the Franklin Institute that’s just for adults. And we’ll have 45 hands-on activities from a variety of partnering institutions that will showcase the amazing science that happens here. We have a bunch of science cafes which take place in bars and restaurants around the city, again, aimed at an adult-based audience. And that can range from public health to hangovers to a brain crawl which is a site-to-site visit about the human brain, to a couple of locations in Old City.
Gerri: It’s a pub crawl.
Josette: Yeah, it’s a pub crawl.
So, you’re reaching high and low with this then, huh?
Josette: Yes, we really, truly aim to have at least one event where most people would say, “Okay, I’m definitely interested in going to this.” We’ve an event about fermentation, so you can go and learn how to make your own yogurt and sauerkraut. We have a couple of signature programs which are a little more theatrical in nature. We have a program about sleep and why it’s so vital to us.
Gerri: We’re providing cookies and milk.
Let me ask you about one of my favorite sciences: Astronomy. That’s pretty difficult to pull off in and around the city, isn’t it? There’s enough light pollution to make the stars nearly invisible, I would think.
Gerri: You’d be surprised. Derrick Pitts, who’s our chief astronomer here at the Franklin Institute, is a huge proponent of city star-gazing. And yes, there’s some light pollution, but you can still see Saturn. And watching people throughout the city experience looking at Saturn for the first time, like the rings of Saturn through a telescope, is one of the most powerful things imaginable.
We are in a time, however, when people’s views of science and the scientific community can be treated with a great deal of skepticism on issues ranging from evolution to climate change. What role do you think the festival plays in maybe tilting the playing field back in the direction of science?
Gerri: I think the festival is all about helping people to understand that science can be for everyone. There is something for everyone within the festival and the idea of even having people meet Philadelphia-based scientists over the course of this nine-day period, we have hundreds of scientists that are involved in these events, that helps to de-mystify the work of scientists and makes it easier to understand where people are coming from.
Josette: I think part of it too is that it allows people to see these scientists as human beings, which is lost sometimes when you’re looking at an issue that makes people very passionate or an issue that’s very controversial is to go back to, “No, this is a person that’s talking.” And allowing for that two-way dialogue and communication. It really just comes down to communication.
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