Although there are increasing calls for scientists and engineers to participate in public engagement activities, little is known about the efficacy of these efforts. Science festivals, and in particular science festival expos, have emerged as popular opportunities for practicing scientists and engineers to engage in education outreach and engagement with public audiences. Fortunately the EvalFest community has collected extensive survey data from science festival expo attendees. In the article “Does the messenger matter? Studying the impacts of scientists and engineers interacting with public audiences at science festival events”, we report on a partial proportional odds analysis we conducted on nearly 5,500 surveys collected from attendees at 14 science expos around the United States.

In general, attendees had overwhelmingly positive experiences at science festival expos. However, 55% of attendees who interacted with scientists/engineers assigned the highest possible overall rating to the festivals they attended compared to 36% of attendees who indicated that they did not interact with a scientist/engineer. This trend was consistent with female attendees and underrepresented minorities (URM). 92% of attendees either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I had fun at this event.” Interacting with a scientist/engineer was associated with a 21% increase in the probability that an attendee would strongly agree with this statement. For female attendees, the interaction was associated with a 23% increase in the probability of a strongly agree rating.

In total, 80% of attendees either agreed or strongly agreed with the statement: “I felt inspired by something I did in STEM.” Attendees who interacted with a scientist/engineer were about twice as likely to strongly agree than those who reported that they had no such interaction. This overall trend was consistent among female and underrepresented minority subgroups. In addition, attendees who interacted with a scientist were 2.18 times more likely to answer “yes” to the binary yes/no statement: “I am more aware of how STEM is a part of my everyday life.”

The results from this analysis of EvalFest survey data highlight the importance of bringing practicing scientists and engineers to public science events. When members of the public are able to interact with scientists and engineers, their self-perceptions of overall expo ratings, how much they are learning, how much they feel inspired, and how much fun they are having become significantly more favorable. Members of the public are also more likely to attest to increased awareness of STEM careers after interacting with a scientist/engineer. These results underline the need to train STEM professionals in effective public outreach and science communication. Further research on public-scientist/engineer interactions is needed to inform effective communication training. While this study collected demographic data only on attendees of science expos, future research may analyze the effect of scientists’ own racial and gender identities on public-scientist interactions.

Todd Boyette, PhD is the Director of the Morehead Planetarium and Science Center and Adjunct Professor of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He currently serves as a Principal Investigator of EvalFest.

Ross Ramsey is a doctoral student in Learning Sciences and Psychological Studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He currently works as a graduate research assistant for the North Carolina Science Festival.

Image courtesy of the Bay Area Science Festival. Learn more here.