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Recipe for success of a science festival

Title: Active ingredients of science communication impact: a quantitative study at a science festival

Author(s) and Year: Madelijn Strick and Stephanie Helfferich, 2023


TL;DR: At science festivals, personal relevance, accessibility, and interactivity are instrumental in the impact on visitors' knowledge, attitudes, or behavior. The strongest predictor of impact was personal relevance so science communicators should aim for festival activities that touch on visitors' emotions and personal life.

Why I chose this paper: Having previously worked for science festivals, I found it challenging to know how best to connect with the diverse range of visitors and what impact the festival may have on their relationship with science. I liked that the researchers in this study sought to provide tangible advice to festival organizers and communicators.


Can you cook? I’m not the best chef, to be honest. Maybe you’re like me and can follow a recipe from a book but it’s still hard to make impactful food. How can we make a dish that our friends would tell others about? That they would look out for on menus? Maybe inspire them to cook for themselves?

Hopefully, I can be a better science communicator than I am a chef. Though I find myself asking what is the secret sauce to make our science impactful? What are the communication ingredients needed to make our science something audiences tell others about? That encourages them to seek out more science events? To feel more connected to science themselves?

Researchers Strick and Helfferich set out to answer this delicious question and identify the active ingredients of a science festival - the main elements responsible for creating a desired impact on visitors.

The Details

Science communication activities aim to have an impact on their audiences, such as increasing knowledge and understanding, igniting curiosity, and increased engagement or personal connection with science.

Despite evaluations of these activities, there remains a lack of empirical evidence of what elements actually drive science communication impact. By better understanding these active ingredients, science communicators can tailor their communication style and festival planning to have a more significant impact on audiences.

To uncover these active ingredients, researchers Strick and Helfferich conducted a quantitative survey study of visitors at the Betweter Festival, a yearly arts and science festival organized by Utrecht University, The Netherlands, which has a wide range of science engagement activities on a ‘drop in’ basis. Building upon science communication literature and frameworks, the survey explored processes that are predictors of human motivation and interest in academic learning, as well as recording various outcomes that visitors may have from going to the science festival. For example, using a Likert scale of Strongly Disagree (1) to Strongly Agree (7), visitors self-reported intellectual stimulation by responding to a statement “I have become curious” and “I know better what I do not know”; self-relevance: “I learned something about myself” and “It connected to my personal life”; and safety: “There was a friendly atmosphere” and “I felt at ease”.

The Results

Researchers Strick and Helfferich analyzed the survey responses (N=456) using an exploratory factor analysis - a technique to identify the underlying relationships between measured variables, in this case, the self-reported experiences of festival visitors.

For the processes that are predictors of human motivation and interest in academic learning, Strick and Helfferich extracted three factors that items could load onto and cluster - explaining over 60% of the variation. The three underlying factors defining these clusters - the active ingredients - were:

  • Accessibility - the extent to which the activity and the scientists came across as open, comprehensible, and approachable, e.g. a friendly atmosphere.

  • Interactivity - the extent to which visitors experienced interactive involvement with the activity and with other people, e.g. personal contact with other or a room for dialogue.

  • Personal Relevance - an aspect of being emotionally ‘moved’, which signals that the activity touched visitors’ deeper concerns or core value, e.g. feeling thoughtful and feeling a connection to one’s personal life.

Conducting a similar analysis for what takeaways the visitors may have, the researchers found the two main outcomes were:

  • Increased familiarity - a feeling of closeness with science and scientists, feeling less distance and having a better picture of science.

  • Increased knowledge - learning something new and becoming more curious.

When taken together and put through a regression analysis - mathematically sorting out which of the active ingredients actually has an impact on the outcomes - the most powerful active ingredient influencing these outcomes was personal relevance. Personal relevance was the strongest predictor of both increased familiarity and increased knowledge - with a p-value less than 0.001 indicating high significance that the active ingredient has a direct effect on those outcomes.

The Impact

Good science communication is more than the science in textbooks, just as the experience of good food is more than the recipe on the page. As science communication practitioners, we should look to include the active ingredients identified in this research: personal relevance, accessibility, and interactivity. Personal relevance can be baked in by demonstrating how science has important consequences for the audience, by touching on emotions, and giving space for reflection. Accessibility can be sprinkled in with a friendly atmosphere and avoiding scientific jargon. Interactivity can be mixed in by active participation, listening to the audience, and co-creating common goals.

Whilst further research of other science festivals and activities could demonstrate whether the findings are widespread, this case study provides a fantastic framework that has potential beyond festivals. The same active ingredients can be added into planning of our video storytelling, our physical demonstrations, and our open conversations.

Now that we have our extra ingredients for success, let's see what science communication we can cook up!

Edited by: Andrea Isabel López and Niveen AbiGhannam.

Cover image credit: Midjourney - Prompt: A recipe book of science experiments.

Please note - The use of AI-generated images is part of an ongoing experiment and Sam Ridgeway and the team continue to consider ethical and cultural concerns associated with this fast-developing technology.


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