The science fair is an almost-universal and often-intimidating academic experience, but Broward County Library (BCL) provides a direct and much-needed service to local teens – help, guidance and resources to make their science fair project a winner. The Science Fair Readiness Festival is the brainchild of Broward County librarian Valerie Marshall, who launched the program after hearing requests by library customers for resources to help them create a science fair project that’s easy, fun and effective, both in cost and in results. In 2017, she applied for and received a NASA @ My Library grant, which provided funding for libraries “to create compelling learning experiences for the community and share the story, science and adventure of NASA's scientific explorations.” Marshall saw an opportunity to use the funding not only to inform her young customers of how easy and fun science fair projects can be but also how easy and fun the projects can be with help from library resources.

The objectives of the Science Fair Fest are three-fold: to provide access to free, hands-on STEM learning/resources for library customers from demographics traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields; increase promotion/use of Library’s non-fiction collection and forge stronger community partnerships with Broward County Public Schools teachers, local STEM organizations and Library customers. Held in October 2019 at Northwest Regional Library and presented online in October 2020, the Science Fair Readiness Festival was originally held (2017/18) at a smaller branch location but was relocated in 2019 due to its burgeoning popularity. Held from Noon to 4PM on Saturday, October 5th, it featured breakout sessions, parent/caregiver science fair information sessions, games and hands-on STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, and Mathematics) activity stations with circuit building, coding and video game production demonstrations.

Presentations included a drone flight, a virtual reality experience with the library’s Creation Station Makerspace staff and “Listen to Experts in their Fields” hourly sessions. These “Experts” hourly sessions schedule included How to Research a Science Fair Project using Library Resources, Underwater Submersibles, Sea Turtle and Shark Research and All About Drones. Students could experiment in the Technology Petting Zoo, look through solar telescopes with the South Florida Amateur Astronomers Association, pose for green screen photos on the moon or Mars, fly micro drones inside the library, explore the South Florida Chamber Ensemble’s Musical Instrument Petting Zoo, enter a LEGO building challenge build paper straw rockets and play a sea turtle survival game.

There was also a large-scale Science Fair Scavenger Hunt where participants could also earn a prize of their choice, such as a tri-fold science fair project board, a book or a toy for completing activities. Optimistically, plans were made to expand the event even further in 2020, until concerns about the spread of COVID-19 closed the doors of all Broward County Libraries in March and led to the cancellation of all in-person programs until further notice.

In order to continue to provide local students with the outstanding, one-stop convenience of a comprehensive, science-fair preparation program, Marshall determined that the Science Fair Readiness Festival would go on, albeit online and with a slightly pared-down and schedule and title. The challenge was to translate the excitement of the live, hands-on element of the in-person Festival to a new, online venue. It was decided that the virtual Science Fair Fest would retain the most-popular elements and activities of the 2019 event, including the information sessions and STEM demonstration/presentations. In order to replicate the kinetic energy of the in-person programs and successfully engage remote attendees, presenters were selected for both content and visual “wow” factor.

Science Fest 2020 was presented online via Webex on Saturday, October 3, 2020 from 11:30AM through 5PM. The day included four separate online events/presentations and virtual door prizes for all participants. The presentations were: 11:30-12:30PM: Family/Student Science Fair Info Session, with live Q-and-A with members of the School Board of Broward County; 1-2PM: Coral Reef Rangers, presented by the Museum of Science and Discovery; 2:30-3:30PM: Fun with Chemistry, presented by Barry U (of Barry University); Be a NASA GLOBE Citizen Scientist, presented by the Space Science Institute.

To provide a fun, interactive component to the online Science Fair Fest, event organizer Marshall created a “Secret Code” game, in which attendees at each presentation were given a special “secret” phrase. They could then email Marshall to receive a certificate of attendance and be entered in a prize drawing. In 2020, almost 300 families attended this virtual version of the Science Fair Readiness Festival. In 2019, 839 customers attended the in-person Science Fair Readiness Festival, an amazing turnout for both a typical Saturday at this location and for an event centered around science projects. As a measure of the success of this event, in October 2018, total attendance at all juvenile programs (including tutoring, baby/toddler storytimes and homeschool co-ops) was 1142. In 2020, 298 families logged on to the online Science Fair Fest, making the event’s transition to virtual a success.

The Festival was also successful in meeting its three objectives as outlined above, as evidenced by program attendance and participation by Broward Schools and other local partners. This event is easily replicated and cost effective for other libraries and library systems, as most of the presenters were free or low-cost and the STEM activities can be tailored to your available budget. BCL’s 2020 online festival, for example was completely free.

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