When children visit a science festival, an interactive and engaging world of people, exhibits, and activities await, ready to capture their attention.  Sometimes they come with their parent, a friend, or a sibling, but every visit includes a chance to make a connection, to foster an interest in science, and wonder at the possibilities of STEM discovery.

Here in the science festival community, organizers create fabulous festivals, making them fun and educational experiences for children and families that choose to attend.  Knowing which variables attract attention and lead to children staying and participating in an exhibit is important.  While each festival, exhibit, and activity is unique, the context and experience within each event can be observed, recorded, and analyzed.

In 2016, EvalFest researchers Kaya van Beynen, Theresa Burress, and seven students from the University of South Florida St. Petersburg set out to better understand how elementary school aged children applied their free choice to navigate through the festival, observing when, where, what, and how long they actively chose to stop and engage with an exhibit.

So how did we do this?

We utilizedunobtrusive observation of randomly selected elementary aged children, accompanied by an adult, as they navigated through the festival.  We documented each exhibit stop, engagement activities (waiting, doing, looking), with whom they interacted (scientist exhibitor, adult guardian, or peers), and the total length of exhibit engagement time. The observations lasted 25 minutes or until the child left the festival exhibit area.  An underlying assumption of this research was that children had the free choice of what exhibits they did and did not want to approach, and likewise the free choice of whether and to what extent they participated in that exhibit’s activity. 

What did we find out?

Children are most likely to actively engage in an exhibit (by doing the activity or talking with a scientist) earlier on.  At each subsequent stop to an exhibit, the children become more passive (i.e. more looking and less doing).

We all worry about children waiting, but we found that it was not detrimental.  Rather, most of the children chose to bypass exhibits with no lines and instead opt to wait in line for the exhibit that they wanted to visit.  Hence, we argue that a child’s willingness to wait is an indicator of a high-value exhibit. 

Some children went through the festival and engaged with adults (either their parents or exhibitors) while another group of children interacted with other youth and not adults.  Both of these two distinct groups had long periods of exhibit engagement time.

Another distinct group of children was characterized by limited engagement with formal festival exhibits and activities, limited adult or peer interaction, but high engagement time with the festival’s natural environment. They engaged in unstructured play on the beach or watching the wildlife. This, we assert, highlights the importance of a festival’s physical surroundings and that non-programmatic ellements are integral to the overall visitor experience.

Finally, we had a group of children that came to eat.  These kids visited 1 or 2 exhibits briefly, with limited engagement, and quickly moved to our food trucks.  This pattern speaks to varying motivations of the festival-goers.  Exhibits are not always the highest priority so thoughtfully including non-educational or edutainment elements such as food trucks, stage, ambient music are important factors to consider.

EvalFest Community

None of this would be possible without the intellectual, organizational, and financial support of the EvalFest community.  In particular, great thanks goes to Karen Peterman, Howard Rutherford, Victor Tor, and our dedicated pool of science festival volunteers and exhibitors. 

The results from this study was recently published in the International Journal of Science Education, Part B.  A second, follow-up article, focusing on the impact of youth vs adult exhibitors on child engagement is currently in preparation. 

Kaya van Beynen & Theresa Burress (2018) Debris, diatoms, and dolphins: tracking child engagement at a public science festival, International Journal of Science Education, Part B, 8:4, 355-365, DOI: 10.1080/21548455.2018.1506189