Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls! Step right up and experience — science! That’s the invitation offered by the Traveling Science Fair, an assemblage of six colorful, carnival-style trailers that travels throughout east Tennessee bringing cutting-edge science information and hands-on activities to underserved students. The Traveling Science Fair was created and staffed by professionals at the Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), the largest U.S. Department of Energy science and energy laboratory. The fair’s enticing trailers provide access to STEM ideas and careers for students who might otherwise have limited opportunity to experience either. We asked Leigha Humphries, ORNL protocol and community relations manager, to tell us more about this exciting, innovative and fun idea:
Q: When and how was the Traveling Science Fair conceived, and what is its goal?
A: The ORNL Traveling Science Fair was a concept created by ORNL staff members at the Spallation Neutron Source (SNS), one of the lab’s user facilities, based on their experience with a portable, interactive SNS exhibit that had been wildly popular at festivals and other events.
While the exhibit represented only one facility and aspect of research done at ORNL, the SNS team saw the opportunity to expand and create a fun, carnival-style road show that represented the full-spectrum of science and research capabilities at the lab.
At the same time, we were interested in how we could expose more students to STEM activities while knowing teachers are limited in time, resources and access to transportation if trying to leave their schools and bring their students to the laboratory.
Given these challenges, we wanted to find a way to bring the lab to them, particularly to school districts that are more rural with fewer STEM opportunities.
Q: How were the themes for each trailer chosen? Did the ORNL scientists have input on construction and outfitting of the trailers? Have there been special challenges along the way?
A: ORNL is the largest open science laboratory in the U.S. Department of Energy system, with leadership in the areas of advanced materials, clean energy, computational sciences, neutron sciences and nuclear science and engineering, so each of these areas is represented by a trailer.
The sixth trailer in the fleet represents the support functions that enable research within the laboratory, from skilled craft workers to emergency responders and safety personnel.
Each of these six areas has a lead trailer representative for his or her organization. The trailer lead has worked with the respective scientific, technical and communications staff members in the respective organization to develop the content, exhibits and messaging.
As you might imagine, selecting how to best represent such broad topics in a small space has been challenging! We designed and built the initial trailer in 2014 with plans to add one trailer per year to reach the full set of six, but due to growing popularity, we added two trailers in 2015 and then simultaneously brought the last three on in 2016 — all while trying to begin operating the previously completed trailers at local events.
So, it was a bit like trying to live in the house you are designing, building, sometimes re-designing and decorating!
Q: Tell us a bit about each trailer and what each has to offer. Which one seems the most popular with visitors?
A: Asking which trailer is most popular is like asking which of your children you like the most! Each has unique activities and components that make it appealing to people of all ages and backgrounds with varying interests.
With all the bells and whistles, lighting and bright colors, the trailers themselves are pretty amazing, but the magic actually happens through our staff members who are there talking to students, doing hands-on demonstrations, explaining the work they do and sharing their enthusiasm for the ways in which we are changing the world.
Here are the trailers’ themes and what each offers:
- Become a Neutron — Explore the subatomic world of neutrons and discover their role in breakthrough research.
- Extreme Science — Learn how researchers combine physics, chemistry and materials science to better understand the universe and make our world a better place.
- Get into Green — Explore plant life, solar-generated electricity, carbon fiber and other composite materials used for 3D printing as well as electric vehicles and the environmental impact of fuels.
- Tiny Atoms . . . Big Science — Learn how nuclear research at ORNL is used to detect international nuclear threats, provide cancer treatments through medical isotopes, improve nuclear reactors through modeling and simulation and develop new technologies that can produce clean, reliable energy for future generations.
- What’s Your Problem? — Learn about the power of supercomputers and how they are used to solve many of the biggest scientific challenges facing researchers. Plus, operate Tiny Titan, a small version of ORNL’s supercomputer.
- Supporting Research – See how specialists, including engineers, health physicists, industrial hygienists, firefighters, medical professionals, computer programmers and environmental scientists, support the research mission.
Q: How often does the fair go out, and what are its usual destinations?
A: We are in our second year of operation with the full complement of six trailers. We average 8-10 exhibitions a year in the greater east Tennessee region, targeting district-level events for middle and high schools as well as large-scale community and public events.
Q: What has been the impact of this project?
A: We estimate more than 50,000 people of all ages have visited the trailers during the past two years alone. We have introduced ORNL to students and brought STEM to life for youngsters who likely never would have had the opportunity to come to the lab.
Q: Tell us about feedback? Have you heard back from teachers or students about how the fair has sparked an ongoing interest in science?
A: Our feedback from teachers, students and the general public has been incredibly positive. Students get really enthused about STEM-related careers after seeing the Traveling Science Fair and the opportunities that exist in these fields.
The director of one rural school system we visited told us that in his 38 years with the schools, the Traveling Science Fair far exceeded any other event for his students.
Q: What guidance would you give other organizations that might consider mounting a similar traveling science exhibit?
A: Be flexible and expect to make continual changes as you gain experience from usage. We are constantly working to improve the experience for visitors to the Traveling Science Fair, provide updated content based on our changing research priorities and offer teachers a meaningful way for their students to interact with our professional and technical staff members.
Q: Is there anything else you would like to share about the Traveling Science Fair?
A: I hope everyone has a chance to see us soon! We will be in Washington, D.C., April 6-8 for the USA Science and Engineering Festival, and in Nashville, Tennessee, May 8-9 for the Tennessee STEM Innovation Summit and STEMxchange meeting.
For more information about the Oak Ridge National Laboratory’s Traveling Science Fair, visit https://www.ornl.gov/sciencefair.