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Wisconsin Science Festival 2012

Fostering Creativity, Encouraging Curiosity
Wisconsin Science Festival 2012

When you arrive at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery for the 2012 Wisconsin Science Festival this fall, prepare for a tornado of sound.

Julie Underwood, chair of the festival steering committee and dean of education at UW–Madison, describes what it was like last year: “Opening the door, you were just about bowled over by the noise and excitement of all the little kids doing science at the hands-on labs in the town center street fair.’’

It should be just as crazy this year. Kids will be able to get their hands on iPads to test whether they are smarter than the monkeys who solve puzzles at the Wisconsin National Primate Research Center. And they’ll be able to make snowflakes, hurricanes, and actual tornados with interactive weather and climate applets while watching an animated globe showing the world weather in 3-D.

For those whose inner nine year olds haven’t quite outgrown their attraction to all things yucky, the “Urination Explanation” should be a great draw, highlighting the chemicals found in urine and why it can be used to make explosives.

The most difficult part of the free festival is deciding where to start: Archeology or music? Bubbles or soil? How about the virtual reality CAVE or the Madison Children’s Museum? There’s almost too much to do at this annual event, which is hosted by UW–Madison and presented by a growing coalition of the science and arts community headquartered in Madison.

“If we had one complaint last year, it was that there were too many competing events at the same time and people had to choose. But that’s the beauty of the Wisconsin Science Festival—there’s so much going on all in one place,’’ says festival director Laura Heisler of the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation, one of the event’s founding sponsors. “We’re not on the level of the World Science Festival, where there are arts and science events literally all over New York City, but we are growing.” And the bounty of events forecast for the 2012 Wisconsin Science Festival, set for September 27 to 30, should more than satisfy the inner scientist in everyone.

“The idea is that the university is full of creative people, and we bring them out of the lab so that people can meet them,’’ says George Tzougros, executive director of the Wisconsin Arts Board. “We like to bring artists and scientists together, so people can see the art and creativity in science and the science behind the art.”

This year’s festival features Sir Ken Robinson, England’s creativity guru, and evolutionary biologist and author Sean Carroll. Carroll, a Wisconsin Academy Fellow and the Allan Wilson Professor of Molecular Biology and Genetics at the UW–Madison, is an expert at using storytelling and filmmaking to teach science concepts to everyone.

Some audience favorites from last year will be back, including author and UW neuroscientist Richard Davidson and world-renowned jazz musician Ben Sidran, two Wisconsin Academy Fellows who demonstrated the importance of living in the present moment in a joint presentation that Paula Panczenko, director of festival sponsor Tandem Press, called “a totally remarkable experience.”

Last year, the audience did brain exercises to learn just how much they miss when their attention “blinks” away from the present moment. Davidson, director of the Center for Investigating Healthy Minds, took the audience through a guided meditation, and Sidran, playing jazz piano, brought the audience into the now.

Davidson says the 2012 theme for their joint presentation will likely include a fair amount of improvisation, when the science plays off the music and vice versa.

Dance will take a twirl with science this year, as UW–Madison’s own “dancing scientists” take to the stage Friday evening at Lathrop Hall to perform a program inspired by scientific discovery. They will present Daughters of Hypatia, which dramatizes great female mathematicians and their struggles to create groundbreaking mathematical theories. The dance was created by Karl Schaffer, the “dancing mathematician” of the University of California–Santa Cruz.

Festival goers can get involved, by taking a master class in movement taught by Schaffer on Friday morning, and by participating in a “talk-back” discussion with Schaffer and the dance troupe after the evening performance.

The science of vibration and “the common thread” found in several genres of music will be the focus of a “sound installation” at the Wisconsin Center for Discovery, and of a performance at Union South by Sound Ensemble Wisconsin, an eclectic collection of musicians who will perform pieces ranging from an Indian raga to Bach’s Suite No. 6 in D Major.

NOVA, the award-winning PBS science program, returns this year as well with its “Iron Science Teacher” competition, a riff on the poplar Iron Chef television show in which participating science teachers receive mystery ingredients and a challenge to come up with a classroom lesson using them. Underwood says that one of her goals for the annual festival is to continue offering teachers a chance to work in campus labs and classrooms to develop new curricula.

NOVA will screen parts of its “Hunting the Elements” and “Finding Life Beyond Earth” programs and follow them with teacher workshops on chemistry and exploring life beyond our planet. Teachers will leave with lesson plan ideas, posters of the solar system and periodic table, even temporary tattoos with science themes.

Another new feature this year will be a visit to and presentation about the newly restored mural by Depression-era painter John Steuart Curry, which was unveiled earlier this year in the recently refurbished Biochemistry Building, across University Avenue on Henry Mall. The mural, titled The Social Benefits of Biochemical Research, depicts how UW--Madison’s pioneering vitamin research freed people and animals from disease and malnutrition. The presentation will focus on the science of art restoration. So it will feature science about art about science. Got that?

The Old Time Radio Drama will feature Wisconsin Public Radio’s Norman Gilliland presenting a one-hour radio and TV play based on Jules Verne’s 1870 novel, Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea. The adaptation features a cast of five main characters, a mixture of live and recorded sound effects, live music, and special lighting effects.

Last year, the festival coincided with a home Badger game, bringing in thousands of red-and-white-clad fans, but also complicating driving and parking on campus. This year, the Badgers will be traveling to their first Big Ten game at Nebraska, so it should be easier for science fans to gain access to the area.

Godfather of the Wisconsin Science Festival and world renowned chemist Bassam Shakhashiri proposed the annual event in the pages of Wisconsin People & Ideas in 2009 and pronounced himself “elated” at how the first festival went. Yes, Shakhashiri is a chemistry professor and William T. Evjue Distinguished Chair for the Wisconsin Idea at UW–Madison and is currently traveling the globe as president of the American Chemical Society, the world’s largest scientific society. But generations of kids know him best as the “Science is Fun” guy, the mad professor who blows up things every year in his “Once upon a Christmas Cheery, in the Lab of Shakhashiri” show.

Children of all ages will be delighted to know that Shakhashiri will be back to blow up more stuff. But the fun science guy turns very serious when he talks about why the festival is so important to the university and to the state of Wisconsin as a whole. “We have a deep obligation to the people of Wisconsin who built this fantastic university for the benefit of the entire state,’’ he says. “I see the Wisconsin Science Festival as a reminder of the university’s social contract with society.”

In Shakhashiri’s view, the university needs to have its most learned scientists in regular conversation with the citizens of Wisconsin, “to touch their hearts and to combat ignorance.”

“We face great challenges in our society, and we need to educate the next generation of citizens and scientists to deal with them,’’ he says. “If I can’t succeed in having an intelligent conversation with my neighbor about the science of global warming, the consequences for us all will be catastrophic.”

Whether participants are watching Professor Shakhashiri’s colorful exploding balloon experiments, playing touchscreen games that illustrate how computers “see,” or participating in any of the dozens of events and workshops located around campus and Downtown Madison, Wisconsin Science Festival organizers hope that events like these will inspire kids, educate ordinary citizens, encourage curiosity, and foster creativity by demonstrating the links between art and science.

For a complete schedule of Wisconsin Science Festival events and workshops, visit wisconsinsciencefest.org.

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