Blowing Up: How A Niche Event Went Big

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Experiment Time World Science Festival Brisbane took science out of the lab and into the streets. Queenslanders learned from 150 of the world’s leading scientists and innovators, largely while participating in hands-on activities.

Three years ago, Suzanne Miller hopped on a plane and flew from Australia to the United States. As CEO and director of the Queensland Museum Network in Brisbane, she’d been looking for the perfect annual science event — something with broad public appeal that could become a signature activity for the museum. After a lot of searching, she’d decided that the World Science Festival (WSF) sounded like the perfect fit.

Produced by the World Science Foundation, WSF is focused on taking science out of the lab and into the community — and fusing it with art along the way. The program has been held in New York City every spring since 2008. Miller attended WSF 2014, where she sat down with organizers to talk about exporting the program to Australia.

Two years later, World Science Festival Brisbane made its debut. WSF Brisbane 2017 followed the next year, held on March 22–26 across five locations in Queensland — Brisbane, Chinchilla, Gladstone, Toowoomba, and Townsville — drawing more than 182,000 people. In a recent interview, Miller said the event has succeeded beyond what she ever expected. “At first, we assumed we’d appeal to our core audiences from the museum,” she said. “But in fact we are reaching a much broader audience — people without a science background who are just really interested in and intrigued by science and by the [festival’s] content.” Street Science! 2017 2

WSF Brisbane’s lineup includes salon events aimed at the research crowd and an apprentice program for students, but — befitting its mission to bring science into the community — it also has numerous events for general audiences, from panel discussions with big-name scientists to hands-on activities for families. This year, more than 60,000 people — roughly a third of the total attendees — turned out for the Street Science! program. The family-focused “science playground” was free and set outdoors in a popular parkland area next to Brisbane’s giant Ferris wheel.

“Families could do everything from blowing up stuff to setting off rockets to doing virtual-reality dives on the Great Barrier Reef or touching reconstructed dinosaurs through augmented reality,” Miller said. “It’s an incredibly broad and diverse program.” The focus is always on the science behind each activity.

But Street Science! isn’t designed for parents to drop off their kids and circle back later. It emphasizes intergenerational learning through hands-on offerings. “We don’t dumb atomic theory down just because we’re talking to five-year-olds,” Miller said. “The parents and grandparents get just as much out of it as the kids do.”

WSF Brisbane had a “major hit,” as Miller put it, with The Hatchery. Inside Queensland Museum, visitors watched loggerhead turtles crack out of their shells and take their first breaths. The baby turtles were later released off Australia’s Mooloolaba Beach, where they’ll ride the current all the way to Chile and Peru. Organizers didn’t just rely on the turtles’ aww factor, but also offered a strong message about conservation — illustrated by giant tanks of jelly fish and plastic bags. To turtles (and most humans), the two look the same floating through the water, which leads turtles to die from accidentally eating the bags. “It had multiple layers of messaging,” Miller said, “and was our biggest hit from a public perspective.”On the banks of the Brisbane River, the festival also hosted free night-time stargazing. Thousands of people showed up to lie on their backs and stare into the night sky while astronomers talked about the constellations. Volunteers from a local astronomy society brought high-powered telescopes, so visitors could see Mars or the rings of Saturn firsthand. Miller said the evening event was especially popular with families.

So far, WSF Brisbane is achieving exactly what Miller had hoped — acknowledging that people can be intimidated by science, and making it both inviting and exciting. “We’re trying to make sure that everybody feels comfortable with the concepts of science,” Miller said, “and through that has a sense of empowerment.”

She’s also noticed that first-time museum-goers who visit the festival are staying plugged in. “They’re coming back and they’re engaging multiple times throughout the year,” she said. “It’s not just, come to the festival once a year and go away and forget about science. It’s really hit a need. Who knows, maybe we’ll get a quarter of a million people [to WSF Brisbane] next year.”

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