Valerie Pavilonis

Yale researchers and local middle schoolers turned a typical science fair upside down on Saturday as they participated in the second annual Flipped Science Fair at Kroon Hall.

The event, organized by graduate students Richard Crouse GRD ’21 and Alexander Engler GRD ’20, immersed local middle schoolers in current science research while simultaneously acting as a workshop for Yale students and postdoctoral researchers on how to discuss findings with those outside the scientific community. The fair featured 170 middle school students and 34 Yale researchers.

“We want to make sure that middle schoolers are exposed to researchers who are not too much older than them,” Crouse said, “and also come from a variety of backgrounds, different types of fields as well, to really make sure that they can maybe see themselves in this position.”

Echoing Crouse’s intentions, several of the students who flocked to Kroon Hall expressed interest in a STEM future ranging from nursing and medicine to biomedical engineering. Students came from middle schools across the greater New Haven area through Pathways to Science — a program that connects middle and high schoolers with opportunities to engage in science at Yale.

Younger students were not the only ones who enjoyed the fair — graduate students were also eager to present their work in the flipped setting.

“It’s really important to be able to engage with young students,” said Lorena Benedetti, a postdoctoral fellow in neuroscience.

Benedetti also noted children’s tendency to assume that STEM careers are too difficult to pursue, explaining that it is important to teach students about science early so that they realize STEM is an option.

Engler and Crouse presented prizes to the most inquisitive students, who earned gold stars for asking questions to the presenters. Students with the most stars at the end of the event received t-shirts to commemorate the fair, while the top student judge received two tickets to the Connecticut Science Center.

Yale student researcher winners included Seth Anderson ’20 for clarity, Sachita Ganesa GRD ’23 for content and postgraduate associate Ella Schmidt ’18 for presentation. Claudia-Santi Fernandes, a researcher at the School of Medicine, won the overall prize for her project on smoking prevention, which shows how videogames can change attitudes about tobacco use in younger demographics. Researchers earned these prizes based on their scores for clarity, content and presentation, which were tallied from rubrics filled out by the middle schoolers.

Last year, the fair was held at Yale’s Hope Building, but the cramped quarters prompted Engler and Crouse to relocate to Kroon Hall for this year’s event. Though Engler is hoping to defend his dissertation in the spring and would have thus departed from Yale before next year’s event, he is optimistic about the future of the fair.

“I have no doubt that this will continue to grow and be as engaging, if not more so, next year,” Engler said. “I hope that this very much expands.”

In preparation for the event, throughout August and September, presenters attended a series of workshops to generate strategies on how to communicate their research to the student judges.

At the first workshop, Crouse and Engler asked participants to give a short speech without visual aids, focusing on breaking down complex technical concepts into digestible bites. A team of graphic designers led the second workshop, guiding presenters as they created posters mapping out the methods, results and implications of their research.

Presenters were encouraged to use additional props to illustrate key ideas. Favorite exhibits among the students featured a tank of tadpoles, a graduate student playing the ukulele and a blacklight illuminating bacteria.

Engler emphasized the importance of featuring the findings’ relevance to the young audience.

“When you’re at a conference, people who come up to your poster or presentation just give you the benefit of the doubt in terms of … saying I’m going to assume what you’re doing is interesting and important,” he said. “Middle schoolers don’t necessarily do that. You have to very much win them over early and you have to put even the smallest things into a context where they can care.”

The event was funded by the Yale Science Diplomats — an organization of graduate students and postdocs who work to bring science education to the public.

Valerie Pavilonis | valerie.pavilonis@yale.edu

Lydia Buonomano | lydia.buonomano@yale.edu.