We can begin by doing small things at the local level, like planting community gardens or looking out for our neighbors. That is how change takes place in living systems, not from above but from within, from many local actions occurring simultaneously.
— Grace Lee Boggs
I want to share my experience, last week, at the Seattle Science Festival as an example of the amazing power of professional community. I was first turned on to the concept of science festivals during an interview I had with the education lead for the Cambridge Science Festival, now in its 6th year. That interview led to another interview with the manager of The Science Festival Alliance which is run out of the MIT Museum in Cambridge. The story of science festivals is fascinating and one I intend to chronicle as an excellent example of collaboration around informal science education initiatives – proof of local action having a global impact!
When I found out that Seattle was holding its first science festival this month, the Seattle Science Festival, I knew I had to take advantage of the opportunity to experience the event; Seattle is only 3 hours away by car and to date it is the nearest science festival to take place, relative to Portland. I chose to visit during the week, to avoid the crowds. Although the major event – the Science EXPO day – took place over the weekend, I did have the opportunity to participate in two very interesting events, as well as an insightful lunch with the festival organizers, where I learned more about the challenges and rewards of planning and holding a regional science festival. Here is some of what I took away from the experience.
Breaking Bread: The power of a professional community
I was lucky enough to be a fly on the wall at a lunch that was organized by Ben Wiehe, the Manager of the Science Festival Alliance. In our initial interview, Ben introduced himself as someone whose responsibility is to “get people together to talk about science festivals.” Ben’s perspective of the importance of a professional community comes from his experience building a community around the idea of science cafes, as the Education Outreach Director for WGBH. He knows all too well how powerful it is to provide a network of support where there was no support, before. In our initial interview, he described a conversation he had with the coordinator of the Bay Area Science Festival, who said to him,
” You don’t understand how important this support is for me. There is no one that I work with, no one here is doing what I’m doing. If I didn’t have the Science Festival Alliance, I’d have noone to talk to about the challenges I face every day.”
The lunch I attended, in Seattle, was organized with the goal of community building in mind; a group of museum professionals from Los Angeles had traveled to Seattle, to experience the science festival and to learn from the organizers of the Seattle and Iowa Science Festivals. This meal was the opportunity for the two groups to break bread and share experiences. I listened as the LA team discussed the milestones they were facing and the Seattle and Iowa teams shared their lessons learned from their experiences from their respective events. They discussed everything from fundraising to event planning to evaluating success and it became clear to me how important this informal discussion was in scaling up the concept of science festivals.
After lunch, I had the chance to talk with Dr. Gina Schatteman, who organizes the iExplore STEM Festival in Iowa City and she shared her perspective of the benefits of a science festival,
“It’s just so exciting the connections we make in planning this type of an event. Although the festival itself is great, what is so amazing is the conversations that take place leading up to the event. People who weren’t talking to each other, and never would have found each other, are now working together towards a common goal. It’s just really a powerful concept.”
What can we learn from Coca Cola?
After lunch, I made my way to the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation which was hosting an open house in its visitors center and showing a series of videos about the various initiatives the foundation has funded. While I have been somewhat familiar with the Gates Foundation, from some of the Education initiatives they’ve funded in the US, I had no idea just how much they have done on the Global Health front, both in research and in developing countries. It’s clear that innovation is key to the mission of the foundation:
I could spend all day writing about all that I learned from these videos, but the most relevant theme for me was from a TEDx speech that Melinda Gates gave about the innovation of Coca Cola. She talked about the 3 things that the development sector can learn from Coca Cola – specifically 1) how to use real time data to drive decisions, 2) tapping local entrepreneurial talent, and 3) marketing to the specific needs and aspirations of the region.
You can watch her full TED talk in the video above, but one of the most powerful points she made is in the messaging strategy of Coke. She shared the song “Wavin’ Flags” by Somali hip hop artist K’naan that Coke used in its commercials throughout Africa during the 2010 World Cup as an example of aspirational marketing, a way of connecting to people in developing countries though their own cultural perspective. The song is inspiring and clearly struck a chord with the masses; Coke translated the song into 18 different languages and it hit the top of the charts in 17 countries. This is the lesson of Coke, how to make a difference globally through local messaging. Hear the song and the commercial in the clip below:
I took away so much from this one speech, particularly around the theme of applying lessons from one sector to solve the problems of another. This was exactly what the Science Festival Alliance was for me, a model of informal science education that has lessons that can be applied to the STEM education community as a whole. This idea of sharing of best practices and fostering never-before-had conversations, surely there are lessons here that we can apply to education! No doubt, I’ll share more on this in future posts as the concept of Science Festivals has made it into my research as a case study in successful STEM initiatives.
Better Science through Chocolate
If you know me at all, then you know that for me, touring a chocolate factory is right up there with a visit to the North Pole. No surprise then that I jumped at the chance to participate in a tasting tour of Theo Chocolates. Theo Chocolates got its name from the TheoBromma tree which tis the plant that grows the cacao bean, the main ingredient in chocolate. Theo Chocolates is also one of only 20 chocolate makers in the US (surprising!) and was the very first USDA Certified Organic and Fair Trade Certified chocolate maker in the US (amazing!).
This tour was just plain awesome, and if you are ever in the Seattle area I recommend you stop by for one of their daily tours. The interesting thing about Theo Chocolates is that you can definitely feel the social responsibility of the company just oozing everywhere. Beyond the Fair Trade practices with the farming industry, Theo has partnered with a handful of charity organizations – such as World Bicycle Relief, PCC Farmland Trust, and the Jane Goodall Institute – to benefit their missions as well as to make and sell really good chocolate!
I learned so much on my visit to the Seattle Science Festival, much more than I can share in one blog post. The take-away, though, is in the power of community!