The Bay Area Science Festival: the Science Carnival of Your Dreams

Columnist
Graduate Division

Cancel all your plans, because today marks the beginning of the 10-day-long fourth annual Bay Area Science Festival! Toss your preconceptions of science festivals aside; this is truly an epic week of events.

“Let’s put more scientists in front of an audience and just let them interact!” declared Kishore Hari, the Bay Area Science Festival (BASF) Director, radiating an infectious excitement as he described the BASF during our interview. A string of events ranging from science storytelling in bars to big hands-on expos, live competitions, facility tours and guided hikes, the 10-day festival “blurs the lines between science and culture” and turns science accessibility into a social experience. The goal is to “strip away the slides, lecterns, and mics,” and make each event not just fun and memorable, but also very personal.

Surveys from the festival’s first three years indicate that meeting a scientist or engineer plays an enormous role in positive outcomes of STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) education, even more so than hands-on activities alone. This makes the BASF a vehicle of change for STEM education in areas with less exposure to scientists; for example, 30% of attendees at the North Bay Discovery Day are underrepresented minorities.

On the flip side, the festival provides opportunities for scientists to have a broader impact.  “Until I volunteered at the AT&T Park [Discovery Day], I wasn't aware that so many families would be interested in coming out to visit science booths for a day, “ said Brittany Anderton, a 6th year BMS student and active BASF volunteer. “It is fun and rewarding to interact with families and teach them scientific principles. I also feel that volunteering at events like these is important for scientists, because they can give a face to a career that is often very mysterious to the lay public.”

The full list of events can be found on the BASF website (www.bayareascience.org). Here are a few that you should look out for:

  • The Festival of Bad Ad Hoc Hypotheses (BAHFest) is a live event in which scientists will present and defend terrible hypotheses with hand-waving rationale to a panel of judges (keynote by Matt Inman of The Oatmeal online comic). Director Kishore Hari was pleasantly surprised when his excitement for this new event was echoed by the 1200 tickets already sold.
  • Another new event is The Three-Minute Thesis, a competition between UCSF graduate students presenting their research -- in layman terms -- to a panel of judges and live audience.
  • For adult audiences, there will be several live storytelling events (Nerd Nite, Story Collider, Snap Judgment, Spokespeople), live comedy, happy hours, science trivia and a Halloween-themed NightLife at Cal Academy.
  • Family events include guided hikes in San Francisco, Marin Headlands, Mt. Diablo and Muir Woods, as well as tours of various laboratories and facilities.

The week ends with a bang: the enormous hands-on expos known as Discovery Days (think 30,000 attendees). One takes place at AT&T Park and the other at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds, on Saturday, November 1, from 11:00 am to 4:00 pm. These are free events, open to the public, featuring interactive science education in all shapes and sizes. In the 150 exhibits, kids and adults can explore anything from extracting their own DNA, to playing in a Robot Zoo, to helping build sensors that will be used in real-life oceanography research. Members of the UCSF community volunteer at several hands-on booths where kids can learn, play, and even watch a sheep brain dissection.

The BASF was created in 2011 by Dr. Bruce Alberts and his brainchild, the Science & Health Education Partnership (SEP), a UCSF organization that collaborates with the San Francisco Unified School District to bring scientists into classrooms around the city and improve the quality of STEM education. Funded by the National Science Foundation through the Science Festival Alliance, UCSF was one of a handful of educational institutions chosen to develop major science festivals in their regions. In just a few years, this program has helped expand science festivals across the country from about five to forty festivals; this includes large cities as well as small communities in which science is less accessible. While the BASF operates under UCSF’s leadership, it also has active involvement from other local universities, museums, national laboratories, and corporations.

The BASF is a 10-day carnival, with chemicals and robots replacing fried dough and Ferris wheels. Join me -- and thousands of others from the Bay Area -- in attending these mostly free and entirely fantastic events!

References: Kishore Hari (BASF Director), Brittany Anderton (BMS student) UCSF SEP, Science Festivals Alliance