How can scientific conferences make more of a difference in the cities where they meet?

I’d like to draw attention to this effort from the American Association for the Advancement of Science to make an impact on local schools where they have their annual meeting: “AAAS Classroom Science Days”.

For over 25 years, AAAS has produced a day of science in conjunction with the AAAS Annual Meeting, working with the local community—--including informal educators, teachers and scientists—--to leave strengthened connections to communities that don’t get needed exposure to science or scientists. At the 2017 meeting in Boston, we talked with groups of scientists from different universities in the Boston area who want to initiate, expand, or improve programs that help scientists engage with K-12 students and teachers. They believe that AAAS can be a hub for these various groups to network, find resources, recruit scientists and connect with teachers. We organized 20 scientists (undergraduate, graduate students, postdocs, professors and researchers in industry) to visit 20 schools and give short talks about their educational and career paths. Scientists, teachers and students all agreed that the talks were a success! Some scientist teacher pairs made plans for future events including lab tours and more talks.

I think this is important.

Consider that every scientist who visits those meetings spends an average of $1500+ on airfare, hotel, meeting registration, meals. A scientific conference is a multimillion dollar investment in a city. It would be great to see that multimillion dollar presence pay off in real public and educational engagement, beyond what would happen otherwise.

What’s unfortunate is that AAAS has built its effort upon entirely local scientists, postdocs, and students. Last year, it had 20 volunteers, this year only 30. That’s a very tiny impact.

Still, AAAS is an exception. Other scientific societies I’m involved with do vastly less. Maybe they organize a teacher workshop, or give a single public lecture.

We should be aiming much higher. Why don’t we see real public forums involving our major scientists associated with conferences? Why don’t we see many more school visits and events, across a broader geographic area than the immediate city? Why don’t we see television programming associated with the conferences?

I hope that scientific societies will think about how they can better leverage the exceptional opportunities that these conferences create for engagement on a local and regional scale.