On a recent Saturday, South Side families and science fans of all ages flocked to the University of Chicago’s campus for a chance to meet UChicago scientists, marvel at live demonstrations, dig into ice cream made with liquid nitrogen, and more as the University hosted its inaugural South Side Science Festival.
The free, day-long event—co-organized by UChicago’s Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering (PME), the Physical Sciences Division, and the Biological Sciences Division—brought more than 2,500 attendees to UChicago’s science quads on Sept. 17.
Organizers envisioned the festival as a way to demonstrate the many ways science can be engaging—and accessible—for everyone. As Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Chemistry Sarah King, who heads the committee that organized the festival, told the Chicago Tribune, the event’s offerings and schedule were shaped to show the ways different elements of science are relevant to our daily lives and to meet attendees wherever they might be on their journey of scientific discovery.
Popular activities throughout the day included a lesson on the life cycle of jellyfish; a hands-on demonstration on extracting DNA from a strawberry; discussions on the building blocks of life, climate change, and health and society; an interactive CPR dummy simulation; a career panel for attendees to connect with faculty, students, and scientists; 3-D printing and fossil stations; food trucks; and musical performances; among others.
“With so much momentum around emerging scientific developments and fields like the quantum sciences and clean energy right now especially, this event was really an opportunity to involve our shared South Side community in that excitement and start building that curiosity and those long-term interests and relationships around science and all it can offer,” Shaz Rasul, executive director of Education Partnerships in the Office of Civic Engagement, said.
For Michelle Warden, a STEM specialist at Wadsworth STEM Elementary School in Woodlawn, the festival was a chance to get her students out of their day-to-day environment and connected with a broad range of science topics and specialists they might not have come across otherwise, all in one place. Warden brought 16 fifth- through eighth-grade students to the event and was pleasantly surprised to see even her older middle schoolers enthusiastically embracing offerings from making DNA models out of licorice and marshmallows and the butterfly enclosure to face painting and photo booths. “I don’t think there were any stations that they did not like. They liked everything,” she said.
“I really appreciated the way that the adults at the festival were talking to the kids and engaging with them, listening to them, and it just made my students feel so comfortable. Really the university is our neighbor but even if our students have driven through the neighborhood, they haven’t been engaged by the academic community,” Warden said.
“They got to be on UChicago’s campus and interacting with people who are seriously studying these things,” Warden continued, “people who are in the field or pursuing these areas of study, and just being able to physically be there, and to have that person’s attention for a minute if they did have questions—I think it was very valuable.”
Having exceeded expected turnout and garnered widespread positive feedback on the festival from UChicago and neighboring community members alike, organizers say they’re already experimenting with ideas for next year’s event.