By James Dungeon
[Editor’s note: The following interview was culled from conversations between the reporter and Judy Paris, president of the Children’s Museum Alliance and original organizer of the Prescott Regional SciTech Fest and Dr. Jeremy Babendure, executive director of Arizona SciTech Fest. The fourth annual Prescott Regional SciTech Fest is 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 25 at the Prescott Gateway Mall, 3280 Gateway Blvd.]
How did you get the Prescott Regional SciTech Festival started?
Paris: Well, between 2004 and 2007, I’d organized a group of people, all volunteers to start a STEM-based museum for kids of all ages in Prescott. STEM stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics. So, we had our own children’s science museum. We truly wanted to blend all of the sciences with the arts, so we added an art focus. They went smashingly together. As part of developing the museum — which, unfortunately, closed last June— I met Jeremy and went to a couple of informational sessions he had regarding SciTech fests. Flagstaff has had one for years. I visited that and that’s when I really decided we needed to make the jump for Prescott. STEM-based jobs aren’t only the future of our community but of the globe. I just wanted to show what Prescott actually has, as there are a lot of science-focused hidden treasures here. So much that’s going on locally in the schools, with organizations, and with businesses have a science focus. I worked with Jeremy in 2013 and organized our first fest, which was in 2014. The timing was great because it was the city’s sesquicentennial celebration. We went to the city to ask if we could hold our first festival on the Courthouse Square. Someone there had already come up with three themes for the city’s celebration — Old West, Wild West, and New West — and they were having trouble filling the last of those. That’s where we came in. It was nice to have that exposure and someone else running the main event and getting food, vendors, and toilets, and running all the other aspects of it. We worked closely with Neil Thomas, from the Regulators, who was the director of the whole event. We had 13 participants or groups who had booths and got really wonderful feedback. Considering we only had six months to pull it together, it was a great start and we got a lot of good feedback. We were called Prescott SciTech Fest: The New West, but since then, we’ve expanded it to a regional event, and “The New West” part was taken off. It was moved to the Prescott Gateway Mall the next year, which has remained our home. Our goals are simple, but I think they’re strong. We want to expose everyone to all of the science wonders of Prescott and the region. We want to encourage 21st century learners and those already in the field to think more deeply, problem solve, be inspired, and share. Last year’s event, our third, was probably our biggest, and we’re continuing to grow.
What can patrons expect?
Paris: There’ll be anywhere from 15 to 30 individual booths set up in the public spaces in the mall. The Gateway Mall has become a partner over the years and donated the space and helped with setup and cleanup — that’s their contribution. Area organizations, schools, and businesses will have tables, all staffed with volunteers, and each one has demonstrations and information. One booth, the University of Arizona, had info and games about nutrition and filling up your plate in proper proportions. In previous years, Jeff Brown, of UniSource has blown up gas in test tubes. People love that. The Heritage Park zoo has animals, and people can touch some of them. The Children’s Museum of Science featured a booth on flight and one on the science of spin with wooden tops. There are robotics demonstrations, too. These booths feature what these places are working on and invite the public to participate.
It sounds like a science fair.
Paris: It is a science fair, but we always include the arts. We have performances from jazz bands from the area and had school art on exhibit. One group last year used tops with markers to create imagery on paper. One of the big ideas is to integrate science and art. … For the fest, we give each person a passport to get stamped or punched at each of the booths. When you get a certain number of stamps or punches — 10, or whatever it is this year — you can come back to the registration table and choose some kind of science-focused trinket. We give away mind puzzles, tops, flashlights, bicycle reflectors, and all sorts of things. Last year Embry-Riddle gave away 500 t-shirts. We had a donation from APS last year that allowed us to print some Sci-Tech t-shirts last year, too. It’s all first-come, first-served. … In general, it’s hard for us to track the exact number of people who attend the event because we’ve got people coming into the mall from all different directions. We have clickers at the registration tables though, and we estimated around 750 who received passports last year. You don’t have to stop there, though, and we think our actual numbers were around 1,000.
What’s the age range of attendees and who is this really for?
Paris: This is for anyone and everyone, both here in the county and tourists who’re here that weekend. There’s something to inspire and encourage everyone. It’s a great way to learn about what’s in the area. The Baghdad mine has participated the last couple of years and set up tables showing materials they’ve mined out of Arizona. There are booths for kids as little as 2-years-olds, lots of touching things on tables, and our age range is really 2 to 99, but 105-year-olds are welcome, too. We’ve had groups from senior centers come, as well as groups from YEI, so there’s stuff for DD (developmentally disabled) adults to do, too. A lot of ex-military pilots end up coming as visitors and end up having in-depth discussions with people from Embry-Riddle. A lot of the demonstrations can be catered to whatever ages and knowledge bases are at the table at the moment. It really is a one-on-one interaction in most cases.
Technology often gets conflated with science. What are some of the ways you can see the two interact at the fair in ways that might surprise people?
Paris: We’ve had some technology people there before, with robots, show how programming turns into physical motion. In the past, there were a couple booths like APS (Arizona Public Service) and SRP (Salt River Project) that showed how computers interact with different aspects of their business. We’ve had Sharlot Hall Museum and Smoki Museum showcase different tools from the past and show how they created food using a stone or used a simple tool to start a fire. The science aspect is how other tools were developed and built upon to do those same things better.
Why pair art with STEM?
Paris: It’s such a natural blend. I think it was Einstein who said that science is art and art is science — if not, then I said it. There’s science and art everywhere. I don’t think you could go through a day without interacting with both in almost every aspect of your life. We hardly do anything anymore that hasn’t been created through science. And, at the same time, we can appreciate the aesthetic beauty of a painting or any number of other things. Then look at something in the natural world like a butterfly. There’s art in that wing and engineering, and so much more we sometimes take for granted.
What do you want people to take away from the festival? What would make it a success?
Paris: We want people to be inspired about the future. We get to chose, as a community, what we want our future to be or, rather, how we interact with that future. We want to support our children to become the next generation of innovators and artists and engineers. They’re going to experience a world that none of us can even imagine. The festival is a time to take a step back and look at where we are in our community, in our place in the world, and say wow — look at all these amazing things happening in our own backyards. I would bet the vast majority of people don’t really know what Embry-Riddle is doing to educate people for the future and what the Heritage Park zoo is doing to promote animal habitats. This is a way to feature all of that. The take away, though, is that you can’t just think about your own backyard. Influences from the outside are becoming greater and greater, and we need to find ways to get our kids and ourselves involved with 21st century thinking, as they are part of the 21st century workforce. It’s about getting inspired and getting educated. It’s about finding something you’re passionate about.
What’s been something you’ve learned from the festival besides, obviously, the nitty gritty of event organizing.
Paris: I think I’ve learned that we’ve got some very talented, very focused people in sciences in the community, and that, if we want the future to grow, we need to support that. I’ve lived in Prescott for more than 30 years and it’s always been touted as a Western community. I love that, but when I see how much science and art is right around the corner, we need to share that, too. Yes, our future includes shootouts on the square. And it needs to include art and enlightenment, too. And our future is ultimately, intimately, tied to the sciences.
If someone’s reading this and wants to get involved in the fest, not just provide patronage, can they still get involved?
Paris: We’d love to have more artists and people in the performing arts. We may be able to have some more exhibitors, if you reach out early in the month. It may be too late to get on our promotional materials, but we can always use more participants and exhibitors.
What’s the background and purpose of Arizona SciTech Fest at large?
Babendure: The festival is there to increase the public’s interest and engagement with science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. So, by having these celebrations around the state of Arizona, it becomes a great opportunity to collaborate and build regional coalitions in your area. In your area, the public can engage with Embry-Riddle, local museums, the Highlands Center, city partners, and local businesses. It’s a great opportunity to unify. … This is the sixth year for Arizona SciTech. I started a similar festival in San Diego before I came to Arizona, so I had some knowledge how to do it. The cool thing here in Arizona is to connect people and collaborate with growing corporations. Because of the increased interest in STEM, especially from the Obama administration, people have ben searching for strategies to promote STEM industries and education. This fit really well here.
Why is STEM important in Arizona?
Babendure: It’s super critical in the workforce. People with that background and training in the workforce get paid about twice as much as people who don’t. Having a STEM-literate community means that industries that depend on people with that training don’t have to move away to find the right workforce. As such, schools are an important component of this, but so is industry. The fest in Chandler is a great example of a community that’s really embraced this. There’s a cultural image that trickles to schools and community college, and universities, and citizens at large. The festival in Stafford is at the other end of the spectrum. Prescott is a good example of a place that’s not totally urban, but also not totally rural. It’s somewhere in the middle. … At an economic level, high level jobs often require STEM-literacy. Places like Intel, Orbital, Honeywell, and ATK need strong STEM people. There’s also a cultural, social level, too, though, where STEM-literate people can make more logical decisions about how their community works and promotes itself.
What should patrons expect from a SciTech event?
Babendure: It definitely varies by region, as we don’t plan individual events. Typically, we push the local festivals to concentrate on local participants. A lot of the festivals are multiple days and at multiple locations, so it can be a little bit of everything. Prescott is one place, though, that’s one day and in one place, which can be quite convenient, too. … I always love booths or presentations that focus on something people wouldn’t normally consider as science or technology. There was one I saw in Verde Valley — a sprinkler company that talked about optimized efficiency. That’s pretty cool. There’s also the one in Maricopa county that includes a salsa festival. These events aren’t just about preaching to the choir about science opportunities. They’re meant to be fun celebrations for everyone.
How did the Prescott event go from an idea to a reality?
Babendure: Judy reached out to me. Prescott is an excellent example of how independent citizens can start things like this. She’d been running the Children’s Museum in Prescott and was inspired to start this here. … We have about two dozen communities in the state doing this and, in my experience, city or community representatives are some of the better contacts to put these festivals together because they can represent their communities more effectively because they’re not as focused on a specific industry or organization. You’re lucky to have Judy there.
Find out more about the fourth annual Prescott Regional SciTech Fest on Facebook and more about Arizona SciTech Fest, in general, at AZSciTech.Com.
James Dungeon is a figment of his own imagination. And he likes cats. Contact him at JamesDungeonCats@Gmail.Com.
Tags: Arizona SciTech Fest, Children's Museum Alliance, Ebry-Riddle, James Dungeon, Jeremy Babendure, Judy Paris, Neil Thomas, Prescott Gateway mall, Prescott Regional SciTech Fest, Regulators, science fair, Sharlot Hall Museum, Smoki Museum, STEAM, STEM, STEM-A, The New West