South Side Science Festival returns after successful debut last year

Free, daylong event for all ages will feature interactive demonstrations, scientific panels, games, food, music

Scientists and science enthusiasts at the University of Chicago are busy preparing to welcome thousands of South Siders to campus on Sept. 30 as UChicago hosts its second annual South Side Science Festival.

Co-organized by UChicago's Biological Sciences Division, Physical Sciences Division, Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering and the Office of Civic Engagement, the festival will explore the ways science impacts our daily lives.

After last year’s inaugural event drew more than 2,500 attendees, organizers are planning an even bigger festival this year featuring more than 100 live demonstrations. Visitors can get an up-close look at live butterflies with the Biological Sciences Division, try their luck at casino-style games designed to illustrate quantum science concepts with the Pritzker School of Molecular Engineering’s STAGE Lab, practice CPR with UChicago Medicine, test out virtual reality headsets with the Physical Sciences Division and more.

In addition to the festival’s live demonstrations, four panels with leading scientists and industry professionals will be held throughout the day at which adults and older students can learn about the ethics of artificial intelligence, water quality in the Great Lakes, the origin of the universe and the health implications of a changing microbiome as well as STEM careers and pathways. 

Festival attendees will also enjoy local food vendors, bands and DJ sets, and access to an array of other UChicago resources, including a chance to experience elements of the University’s free STEM programs for youth offered throughout the year.

Assistant Professor of Molecular Engineering Hannes Bernien, who serves as a co-faculty organizer for the festival with Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Chemistry Sarah King, Associate Professor of Chemistry John Anderson and Neubauer Family Assistant Professor of Human Genetics Maanasa Raghavan, says the event aims to get local attendees from all walks of life excited about science and the everyday ways it can be relevant.

Because of the festival’s informal structure, visitors can take part in whichever activities appeal most to them. Bernien is looking forward to drawing a large number of South Side youth and their families to the event this year, but he’s also eager to demonstrate the ways teens and adults can engage with the University’s scientists.

“It’s especially for people who think, ‘Oh, maybe science isn’t really for me,’ or the young adults who may be thinking about science, but they don’t know how to get into it. If we can show people that science really has something in it for everybody and it’s super engaging, that’s one of the primary goals,” Bernien said.

Friendly, inclusive environment

“The ethos of the South Side Science Festival is to showcase STEM fields and careers in a fun, friendly, and inclusive environment,” Raghavan said. “The event is open to all, but we’re especially focused on providing a chance for young people historically overlooked in science advocacy to engage directly with STEM researchers, learn about their science, and discuss different training and career opportunities.” 

Creating entry points like the festival for South Siders to interact with emerging areas of science is also at the heart of the broader Inclusive Innovation initiative the University is leading in partnership with the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, Argonne National Laboratory and Fermilab. The initiative aims to engage local students, educators and workers and connect them to the city’s growing scientific ecosystem, helping to generate a diverse talent pipeline in the sciences and spur economic growth on the historically under-resourced South Side.

“With this event, we’re looking forward to building connections between our campus community and the broader South Side community that extend beyond the day of the festival,” Christian Mitchell, UChicago’s vice president for civic engagement, said. “In the long run, our goal is to bring more diversity to the sciences and connect local students, educators, and residents to the fields we expect to grow in the coming years.”

For Michelle Warden, a STEM specialist at Wadsworth STEM Elementary School in Woodlawn, last year’s festival was a chance to get her students out of their day-to-day environment and connected with a broad range of science topics and specialists they might not have come across otherwise, all in one place.

“The University is our neighbor, but even if our students have driven through the neighborhood, they haven’t been engaged by the academic community,” Warden said. “They got to be on UChicago’s campus and interacting with people who are seriously studying these things, people who are in the field or pursuing these areas of study, and just being able to physically be there, and to have that person’s attention for a minute if they did have questions—I think it was very valuable,” she said.

Get ready for Science Slam

Bernien is particularly excited about the festival’s Science Slam, a new activity this year that pits five UChicago graduate students and postdocs against each other in an audience-judged competition to see which contestant can deliver the most engaging eight-minute science presentation. Attendees can expect everything from Ted-Talk-style lectures to music and dance numbers on topics that range from ChatGPT to quantum physics.

Ultimately, festival organizers hope attendees leave the event feeling like science is fun and there’s a place for them in its many fields.

“I hope people see that science is incredibly diverse and very broad,” Bernien said. “There’s not just one way to be a scientist—there are so many different ways to be a scientist. And demonstrations and students come from all different backgrounds. Science is really for everyone.”

The South Side Science Festival will be held from 11 a.m. to 6 p.m. on Sept. 30 on UChicago’s campus at 929 E 57th St. Registration is free.