Written By: Carlyn Scott, Science Communication Assistant at USF CMS
Thousands of students logged on to participate in the first-ever virtual St Petersburg Science Festival, held October 16-17. The program featured three Junior Scientists, who presented experiments, described concepts, and engaged the audience through science outreach. Developed in 2014 by CMS students, the goal of the Jr Scientist program is to give middle and high school students the opportunity to volunteer at the festival, as a way to engage them in science. This year was different.
In previous festivals, Jr Scientists are paired with exhibitors where they help with science activities at the festival. This is a unique experience since these students learn about diverse STEM fields first-hand from experts in their fields. For many students, this exposure to science outreach is a positive, confidence boosting experience.
“The students that come into the festival and the ones that clock out are two different students,” said Natalia Lopez-Figueroa, a CMS doctoral student and chair of the Jr Scientists committee. “It’s very rewarding to see the change in their perspective, the amount of knowledge they gain within a couple of hours and see how they enjoy their experience.”
Since the USF St Petersburg campus began hosting the event 10 years ago, CMS has participated in every festival. An event that many CMS students and faculty alike are eager to participate in, it is a great opportunity to meet with the community and share their research with the public.
“It’s so rewarding to see you nurturing the minds that will potentially take over the field,” said Lopez-Figueroa.
This year, adhering to social distancing guidelines, the young volunteers created video presentations of self-conducted experiments that were featured on the science festival website. The virtual setting due to COVID-19 was a double-edged sword; while students miss out on interacting face-to-face with members of the community, they were able to connect to thousands more participants from across the country to share research and knowledge.
The virtual setting has the potential to increase the range of students who participate in the festival, Lopez-Figueroa said.
“It’s an informal setting, where students can see science from another perspective, outside of a lab and institution,” said Lopez Figueroa. “That is what keeps me coming back each year. At the end of the day, we are able to combine science education and research.”