November 16, 2021

Graduate students from across the Virginia Tech community recently gathered for the opportunity to improve their science communication and poster-making skills. IGC Fellows Abby LewisAmanda HensleyHeather Wander, and Emma Bueren partnered with the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science to organize this event in anticipation of their upcoming IGC capstone project: Flip the Fair.

Flipped science fairs literally flip the traditional science fair format on its head by having elementary school student judges evaluate graduate students presenting their research. Local elementary students learn about important scientific concepts from real scientists in a small-group setting, with plenty of opportunities to ask questions and participate in hands-on demonstrations. The presenters, in turn, learn to tailor their research pitch to a general audience, with emphasis on keeping things exciting, understandable, and relevant.

In order to prepare the graduate students for the fair, two workshops were held simultaneously at the Blacksburg and the Roanoke campuses. Training focused on building skills for presenting to broader audiences, which is easier said than done. “Human beings gain ability and confidence by practicing difficult skills,” said Patty Raun, Director of the Virginia Tech Center for Communicating Science. “Too often in higher education we are expected to learn how to do challenging things by reading about them or listening to lectures. The communicating science experiences we provide in our workshops allow participants to expand their comfort zones and develop confidence by practicing communication skills in a safe and creative way.  Participants don’t have to imagine it . . . they do it!”

Science Communication Workshop
Science Communication Workshop
Science Communication Workshop

Initial funding for the idea came from an American Geophysical Union Sharing Science Grants awarded to Lewis earlier this Fall. It has since grown to a large collaborative project with stakeholders including the Global Change Center, The Center for Communicating Science, the Virginia Tech Communicating Science Club, The Center for Educational Networks and Impacts, and the Roanoke Public Libraries.

“Our Flip the Fair event is an opportunity for graduate students to practice science communication and receive feedback from the toughest audience—children,” said Lewis. “At this initial workshop, participants received training in science communication, started thinking about how to design posters for the event, and discussed diversity, equity, and inclusion with assistant director for the Graduate School Office of Recruitment, Diversity, and Inclusion Justin Grimes,” she added.

Initially anticipating 25 participants, interest in the workshop was so great that organizers had to find larger accommodations for the 34 in attendance. For Abby and the other fellows, it was a moment to savor. “After months of planning, it was so exciting to finally meet all of our participants!” Abby shared.

The flipped science fair will be held Saturday, February 5, 2022 from 1-3 p.m. at the Melrose Branch Library in Roanoke and is open to the public. The event will require registration and more information will be available in the coming months.