Flip the Fair: Science Communication, Outreach, and Empowerment in One Package

Two elementary school aged children with clipboards look on as a young adult shows them something.
Flip the Fair judges consult their judging forms as they speak with presenter Erin Collins. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Breef-Pilz.

What does it look like for science communication to empower? At a February 2022 event called “Flip the Fair,” organizers put power directly into the hands of elementary students, inviting them to judge graduate student science fair posters.

The program had two goals: First, to provide meaningful, identity-building science outreach, enabling 3rd–5th grade students to interact with diverse real-world scientists in small group settings. Second, event organizers aimed to provide a fun and engaging opportunity for graduate students to practice and receive feedback on their science communication skills, recognizing the critical importance of communicating scientific research to broad audiences.

A young Black woman wearing a white face mask stands behind a desk loaded with science activities. To the right of the photo is a science fair poster titled "Bad Bugs in Our Drinking Water." Behind her is a wall filled with library shelving and books.
A Flip the Fair graduate student presenter, Tolu Odimayomi, is ready for visitors. Photo courtesy of Emma Bueren.

The Flipped Fair was organized by nine Virginia Tech graduate students in collaboration with the Roanoke City Public Libraries and was held at the Melrose branch of the library on February 5, 2022. Over 40 graduate students participated as presenters and event volunteers, and approximately 250 participants attended, coming from Roanoke City and County, including the Melrose branch community.

Three young visitors study a science fair poster about honeybees as the researcher talks to them. The poster is titled "Can a Weed Killer Affect Honeybee Behavior?"
Flip the Fair judges examine a poster on honeybee behavior as presenter Laura McHenry explains her research. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Breef-Pilz.

The event was exciting and energetic, an overwhelming success, according to both organizers and participants. As one elementary student judge wrote on their judging form, “It was very cool and it was very awesome and it was very cool and awesome!”

For judges, the event had multiple benefits. Veronica van Montfrans, a mother of one of the judges, spoke to Randy Walker with Cardinal News and said, “[My son] gets to meet and interact with scientists in his community. It humanizes it and makes it accessible to him. This is something he could see himself doing. That is so important when inspiring the next generation.”

Another judge was glad to have the ability to interact directly with a graduate student studying a topic close to home, writing, “My cousin had cancer and it helped me understand better.”

Young visitors at a science fair poster talk with the presenter. Stuffed toy horses face the children on the table.
Flip the Fair judges engage with horse virus researcher Nadia Saklou. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Breef-Pilz.

Presenters found it rewarding to see children engage with their work. One presenter stated, “The most impactful part was when I saw kids telling each other about my research in the hallways.” Another said, “Watching a student judge have that ‘I get it’ moment when I explained something on my poster was very impactful and is one of the reasons I’d like to do it again.”

A young Black man in a maroon t-shirt stands in front of a science fair poster titled "Down the Hatch!!!" as two elementary school aged children look on.
How do reptiles swallow food? Flip the Fair judges find out as they talk with graduate student presenter Jeffery Anderson, Jr. Photo courtesy of Adrienne Breef-Pilz.

Holly Morrison, a Ph.D. student in the Biomedical and Veterinary Sciences program and the overall winner of Flip the Fair (based on judges’ scores), posted on social media following the fair to express her feelings. Her post said, in part, “This is the most meaningful award I’ve won yet…the icing on the cake is inspiring children that their future in science is as big as they dream. My heart is definitely overflowing with joy today.”

A circle of people stand tall with their arms raised above their heads, stretching toward the ceiling.
Communicating science workshops held in advance of the event helped presenters make their communication more personal, direct, spontaneous, and responsive. Photo courtesy of Amanda Hensley.

The success of this event was facilitated in part by a preparation workshop for presenters. Carrie Kroehler and Patty Raun from Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science led engaging workshops on science communication and message development for students at the Blacksburg and Roanoke campuses, respectively. Justin Grimes (Fralin Biomedical Research Institute, Virginia Tech) led a workshop that invited presenters to consider diversity, equity, and inclusion in their presentations. Organizers also hosted Mónica Feliú Mójer for a talk on culturally relevant science communication, which can be viewed on the Center for Communicating Science YouTube channel.

Both Virginia Tech organizers and the Roanoke Public Libraries are working to make this an annual event. A short documentary film about the project is available here.

This photo shows a group of 8 young adults wearing face masks and posing for a group photo. A headshot of another person is edited into the lower right corner of the photo.
Flip the Fair organizing team. From left to right: Heather Wander, Emma Bueren, Carla López Lloreda, Amanda Hensley, Claudia Perez, Abby Lewis, Grace O’Malley, Sophie Drew. Inset image: Gates Palissery.

The organizers have three take-home messages. First, do it! Organizers found that it was empowering to put together a large event from scratch and foster community connections across disciplines. Second, this event was successful in part because it harnessed the skills and energy of a large group of organizers with diverse experiences coming together. They suggest working to find a community of enthusiastic collaborators and trusting the group to accomplish what is needed, sometimes without direct supervision. Finally, organizers found that applying for funding early in the process of designing this event was key to crystalizing the goals of the project and setting a clear timeline.

Flip the Fair was sponsored by Virginia Tech’s Center for Communicating Science and a $1,000 grant from the American Geophysical Union’s Sharing Science program. Five of the organizers (Abby Lewis, Amanda Hensley, Heather Wander, Emma Buren, and Grace O’Malley) completed this project as a capstone for the Interfaces of Global Change graduate program, an innovative interdisciplinary graduate education program designed to address the multidimensional aspects of global change. The Interfaces of Global Change program and the Virginia Tech student Communicating Science Club provided additional support.

Additional contributions from the following Virginia Tech groups were greatly appreciated: Translational Biology, Medicine, and Health Program; Fralin Life Sciences Institute; Fralin Biomedical Research Institute; Health Sciences Education and Student Affairs Office; Center for Educational Networks and Impacts; Stream Team; and Science Policy Education and Advocacy Club. Organizers also appreciated support from the larger community: students from the Masters of Arts in Biomedical Sciences program at Bluefield University; SEEDS (Seek Education, Explore, DiScover) – Blacksburg Nature Center; Kiwanis Club, Roanoke; Carilion Clinic Center for Simulation, Research and Patient Safety; Feeding America of SWVA; Press Press Merch, Roanoke; The Candy Store, Roanoke; Mill Mountain Zoo; Roanoke Pinball Museum; Sugar Magnolia; Mill Mountain Coffee & Tea.

By Abigail Lewis with input from the rest of the Flip the Fair organizing team

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