Philanthropic efforts to introduce lay audiences to science tend to fall into two categories: The first, more traditional, approach is familiar to anyone who has ever visited a museum exhibit, tuned in to a documentary on public television or browsed an educational website. These efforts are like lighthouses: They beckon people brightly and illuminate, but they tend to summon those who are already comfortable sailing over. That’s where the complementary approach comes in, which could be described as ‘meeting people where they already are.’ These projects are not lighthouses but instead are like brightly colored buoys — they may not beckon like a lighthouse, but you can place more of them strategically in the water.
The Simons Foundation’s new education and outreach initiative, Science Sandbox, was designed with the latter approach in mind — to meet people where they are and expose them to the thrills of the scientific process and scientific thinking. The initiative provides grants and support to projects that seek to inspire scientific thinking in people who may not live in a city with a world-class museum, may not watch public television regularly, or may not even be aware that science is something they can relate to.
Developed in 2016 and publicly launched in early 2017, Science Sandbox takes its name from the place where children often get their first taste of self-directed curiosity and collaborative experimentation — the same values that underpin discovery-driven science research. The initiative’s manifesto — ‘unlock scientific thinking’ — makes clear the notion that instead of treating people as passive participants in learning, we should treat them as what they already are: naturally active explorers of their own worlds. Science Sandbox’s diverse board of advisers, which includes accomplished scientists, educators, entrepreneurs and artists, reflects this expansive view.
To act as a catalyst for ‘unlocking scientific thinking,’ Science Sandbox functions as more than a grant-maker. Its charter includes language about “amplify[ing] our awardees’ impact” in extra-monetary ways, which often happens in the form of informal introductions that the foundation facilitates. A distribution partnership between Vice’s science and technology vertical — Motherboard — and filmmaker Elliot Kirschner, whose documentary film “A Brief History of Fat” was supported by Science Sandbox, proved especially fruitful. “Typically, Motherboard and Vice don’t show any film that isn’t produced and developed in-house,” says Boyana Konforti, director of Education & Outreach at the Simons Foundation. “We did not do anything more than bringing the two entities together, but Motherboard was very intrigued by Elliot’s ability to bring together very sophisticated science and storytelling, and they found a very natural way to work together.”
Another place where science education happens naturally — and at massive scale — is Wikipedia. The Science Sandbox-supported Wikipedia Year Of Science 2016 encouraged science educators to charge their students with writing Wikipedia entries instead of term papers. This project expanded the concept of ‘education and outreach’ by recruiting researchers to participate in the ‘edit-a-thons’ hosted at existing scientific conferences, such as the 2016 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) in Washington, D.C. These events not only reach scientists where they already are, but draw them into discourse already happening on Wikipedia by teaching them the basics of editing content and encouraging them to write and edit articles themselves, in their areas of expertise.
“This was when the Zika virus and the discovery of gravitational waves were really hitting the newspapers,” Konforti recalls of that first AAAS edit-a-thon. “Scientists edited Wikipedia pages for almost six hours, and the pages were viewed many tens of millions of times since the conference. That’s a very, very big reach, and the impact that you get on Wikipedia users is just incredible.”
Another Science Sandbox-supported event in 2016, produced by U.K.- and U.S.-based Guerilla Science, also gathered people together in a peer-to-peer way. Sensory Speed Dating invited singles and couples in New York to the House of Yes, an edgy performance-art venue in Brooklyn’s industrial district of Bushwick, to experience “a greater understanding of the subconscious processes that drive our behavior and desires.” Participants experimented with such unorthodox dating rituals as donning pulse monitors to identify fluttering hearts, inhaling other participants’ odors to detect ‘pheromonal communications,’ and staring into each other’s eyes for a full minute without speaking.
For Madeline Kaye, a self-described “total science illiterate” who attended Sensory Speed Dating with her boyfriend, it was Guerilla Science’s choice of venue that first piqued her interest. “I’m a big fan of House of Yes,” she says. “You could go there on any ordinary Tuesday, and it’s glitter and go-go dancers. Not exactly a square crowd.” She left the event feeling not only that the scientific content had lent “an additional energy to the room,” but also that it had broadened her understanding of what she had previously considered “amorphous” sexual attraction. “It really comes down to the fact that we’re still animals,” she says, “and we’ll perceive certain signals in certain ways no matter what.”
Mark Rosin, Guerilla Science’s U.S. director, describes the organization’s mission as building up a sense of “science identity” in members of the public just like Kaye — which isn’t the same thing as teaching facts. “The point of something like Sensory Speed Dating isn’t remembering the exact Latin name of a particular microbe,” he says. “It’s about building a cultural connection between people’s interests as they are, and what science has to offer those interests.”
“The foundation is keen to see what new projects Science Sandbox will undertake next year,” says Marilyn Simons, president of the foundation. “We hope our grantees and partners will relay the joy of experimentation — and revive the sense of play we felt as children in the playground sandbox.”