The Virginia Tech Science Festival is a one-day fall festival serving 3,500 to 6,000 people in the mountains of western Virginia working to help attendees learn just how all-encompassing science is. The festival is a collaborative effort spanning multiple university entities and regional organizations. As a land-grant research university, Virginia Tech has a broad community of people thinking scientifically and conducting world-class research, and part of the mission is to share discoveries and research with the community.

The Virginia Tech Science Festival gives time, space, and permission for sharing research with the broader community. The festival inspires children and families while allowing faculty and students to hone their science communication skills. The goal of the festival is to inspire a love of science in everyone who visits. To that end, we wanted to share with Evalfest readers some details on two programs we run as part of the festival, our SAFE space designation and our charter bus system to bring in students from underserved regions in Virginia.

In 2018, the Virginia Tech Science Festival again collaborated with the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research to make the festival a SAFE (Supporting Autism-Friendly Environments) space. We worked to accomplish this goal by dedicating a room at the festival to sensory-friendly experiences and by training exhibitors in autism-friendly exhibit design and presentation; 19 exhibitors representing 15 different exhibits attended the training. Thirteen student volunteers were trained and helped to staff the room, which stayed busy throughout our six-hour festival. We added SAFE language to our social media and print campaigns and also made magnetic buttons so that families could identify people trained in working with the needs of people with autism. The sensory-friendly materials developed for this event were then used at subsequent outreach events. Anecdotal evidence tells us that several families chose to come to the festival because of the effort we made to make it more inclusive of people with autism. Following the event, the Virginia Tech Science Festival was awarded the 2018 SAFE Community Champion Award by the Virginia Tech Center for Autism Research.

To further expand opportunities to visit the festival, charter buses were sent to three underserved regions of the state to alleviate transportation challenges. Area school systems also provided school buses to bring students to the event. In all, ten school systems led field trips to the Saturday festival. The VT Science Festival provides an opportunity for these attendees to speak with scientists and role models that these attendees might not have otherwise had access to; less than half of the field trip participants reported having spoken to any scientist before the event.

There is a new promotion in common media that says, “If she can see it, she can be it” and the current research supports this statement. For students to grow into future scientists, academics, or even citizen scientists, they need to see others like them in those positions, so access is an important early step in this process. We are proud to offer the benefits of the Virginia Tech Science Festival to all kinds of learners.

Phyllis Newbill is festival director and the outreach and engagement coordinator at the Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology at Virginia Tech and has been part of the science festival staff since its inception in 2014. Bryanne Peterson is the research assistant professor who leads the assessment and evaluation of the festival and manages the Science in Real-Time booth that allows participants to learn about the science of evaluation by participating in studies related to the festival itself.

Image courtesy of the Virginia Tech Science Festival. Learn more here.