Scientists and science enthusiasts from across the University of Chicago are busy preparing to welcome thousands of South Siders to campus on Saturday, September 30, as UChicago hosts its second annual South Side Science Festival. Co-organized by UChicago's Biological Sciences Division, Physical Sciences Division, Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering, and Office of Civic Engagement, the festival will explore how science impacts our daily lives.
After last year’s inaugural event drew more than 2,500 attendees, organizers are planning an even bigger festival this year featuring more than 100 live demonstrations. Visitors can get an up-close look at live butterflies with the Biological Sciences Division, try their luck at casino-style games designed to illustrate quantum science concepts with the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering’s STAGE Lab, practice CPR with UChicago Medicine, test out virtual reality headsets with the Physical Sciences Division, and more.
In addition to the festival’s live demonstrations, four panels with leading scientists and industry professionals will be held throughout the day where adults and older students can learn about the ethics of artificial intelligence, water quality in the Great Lakes, the origin of the universe, and the health implications of a changing microbiome as well as STEM careers and pathways.
Festival attendees will also enjoy local food vendors, live bands and DJ sets, and access to an array of other UChicago resources, including a chance to experience elements of the University’s free STEM programs for youth offered throughout the year. In an effort to best cater to South Side residents’ interests, the event’s programming and structure were informed in part by a series of University-hosted community listening sessions.
Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering Hannes Bernien—who serves as a co-faculty organizer for the festival alongside Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Chemistry Sarah King, Associate Professor of Chemistry John Anderson, and Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Human Genetics Maanasa Raghavan—says the event aims to get local attendees from all walks of life excited about science and the everyday ways it can be relevant for the community. Because of the festival’s informal module structure, visitors can take part in whichever activities appeal most to them. Bernien is looking forward to drawing a large number of South Side youth and their families to the event this year, but he’s also eager to demonstrate the ways teens and adults can engage with the University’s scientists.
“It’s especially for people who think, ‘Oh, maybe science isn’t really for me,’ or the young adults who may be thinking about science, but they don’t know how to get into it. If we can show people that science really has something in it for everybody and it’s super engaging, that’s one of the primary goals,” Bernien said.
“The ethos of the South Side Science Festival is to showcase STEM fields and careers in a fun, friendly, and inclusive environment,” Co-Faculty Organizer and Professor of Human Genetics Maanasa Raghavan said. “The event is open to all, but we’re especially focused on providing a chance for young people historically overlooked in science advocacy to engage directly with STEM researchers, learn about their science, and discuss different training and career opportunities. We hope that the festival will spark scientific curiosity, nurture a sense of belonging, and lay foundations for lasting networks that will lead to increased participation of women and other underserved groups in STEM.”
Creating entry points like the festival for South Siders to interact with emerging areas of science is also at the heart of the broader Inclusive Innovation initiative the University is leading in partnership with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Laboratory, and Fermilab. The initiative aims to engage local students, educators, and workers and connect them to the city’s growing scientific ecosystem, thereby helping to generate a diverse talent pipeline in the sciences and spur economic growth on the historically under-resourced South Side.
“With this event, we’re looking forward to building connections between our campus community and the broader South Side community that extend beyond the day of the festival,” UChicago’s Vice President for Civic Engagement Christian Mitchell said. “In the long run, our goal is to bring more diversity to the sciences and connect local students, educators, and residents to the fields we expect to grow in the coming years. If we can spark their interest with laser demonstrations and liquid nitrogen ice cream, they’re more likely to participate in one of the free STEM programs we offer throughout the year and pursue a STEM career.”
For Michelle Warden, a STEM specialist at Wadsworth STEM Elementary School in Woodlawn, last year’s 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. “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, 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,” she said, noting that she plans to organize a group of students to attend this year’s festival as well.
Bernien is particularly excited about the festival’s Science Slam, a new activity this year that pits five UChicago graduate students and postdocs against each other in an audience-judged competition to see which contestant can deliver the most engaging eight-minute science presentation. Attendees can expect everything from Ted-Talk-style lectures to music and dance numbers on topics that range from ChatGPT to quantum physics.
Ultimately, festival organizers hope attendees leave the event feeling like science is fun and there’s a place for them in its many fields.
“I hope people see that science is incredibly diverse and very broad,” Bernien said. “There’s not just one way to be a scientist—there are so many different ways to be a scientist. And demonstrations and students come from all different backgrounds. Science is really for everyone.”
The South Side Science Festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Saturday, September 30, 2023, on UChicago’s campus at 929 E 57th St. Registration is free. Register here. All ages are welcome.