Q&A: Jeremy Babendure, AZ SCI-Tech Executive DirectorApril 22, 2016
Q: Tell us about this year’s event?
A: We’re now in our fifth year of the Arizona Sci-Tech Festival, and this year there are over 1,000 events in about 50 cities and towns. Every year it has grown, and we now have about two dozen communities that are involved creating their own regional events. This year we’re expecting to draw more than 400,000 attendees. Many professions are starting to demand people that have a skill set with science, technology, engineering, and math skills (STEM). It’s about helping to solve problems, and it’s very important to have that technical skill set to do their jobs.
Q: Why is this important?
A: We’re finding that companies such as the Ratheons, Orbital ATKs and Honeywells of the world desperately need skilled workers. As we evolve to a more high-tech, science-related workplace, there’s a groundswell of demand to make sure that our workforce has science and tech skills to be a leader. It’s been called a national crisis that we don’t have enough STEM workers able to enter these professions.
Initiatives like the Arizona Sci-Tech Festival are really working to increase the public’s awareness of what’s happening with science and technology in their lives, but also to hopefully engage both the traditional STEM professionals, STEM workers, but also the general public to recognize science and technology in their work. I’m in conversations with a lot of the people from the workforce community. I’m finding that these days when I’m talking about STEM, people nod their head. They know that it’s something that’s important. They’re not asking me what that acronym stands for.
Q: Are schools the key?
A: I’m also finding that it’s starting to reach the schools. Almost every school knows about it. I think that’s a strong indicator that the public is starting to demand it, and with that, we’re seeing a lot more response from places that serve the community. It could be small businesses, government entities or community stakeholders. They all want to really engage with STEM events to make that happen. The first year we had about 200 events on the calendar, and that’s grown to 400 to 600. This year we’re breaking over 1,000 events that people are putting on throughout the festival. That’s a general indicator that there are many more organizations wanting to have STEM be part of their repertoire of how they reach their audiences.
Q: Share a few examples?
A: There are several events that we’ve started working with that we like to call Sneaking Science. The first year we started we worked with the Arizona Renaissance Festival and the Glendale Chocolate Affair, and we worked with Scottsdale to create the science and baseball event. We keep seeing more and more organizations basically “sneaking” science into existing events. Last year we saw the Maricopa Salsa Festival bring science. This year the Ostrich Festival in Chandler is bringing science into it. It’s becoming more of an “in” thing that the public is recognizing is important.
We’ve been fortunate to have a strong foundational partnership from the Arizona Commerce Authority, the Arizona Technology Council Foundation, Arizona Science under ASU, U of A, and the Arizona Board of Regents. We’ve been really lucky to have Cox Communications as a presenting sponsor and then to have State Farm and Honeywell as our gold sponsors continuing to support the festival and keep it rolling. We have an amazing set of sponsors at silver level. We have 11 of them there. We have a dozen at the bronze level. We have a lot of organizations that not only engage providing cash, but they see the importance of rolling up their sleeves and creating events and being volunteers to help create programs with us.
Q: What is unique about this model?
A: The advantage is that the events aren’t just events for the sake of throwing an event. It’s about being that vehicle to pull in stakeholders — both the traditional and non-traditional groups. It’s about the community, and we give that platform to communicate. Each event has its own community, its own story, both at the broader event level and at the individual participants.
Q: Most clever thing done?
A: Our Chief Science Officer program. It’s a way to impact culture in schools from the most grassroots component: the students. It increases student voice and ties between industry, postsecondary institutions and students. The Chief Science Officers are students elected by their peers to help advocate for science and technology opportunities both on their campus and in the community.
We actually have about a dozen events that are being co-produced now by the student Chief Science Officers. The kids are getting engaged, they’re getting their peers engaged, and they’re more proactively getting their schools engaged in several of the events.
Q: What marketing programs have been key to success?
A: We have two great events that serve as bookends. We kick off the year with an Innovation Summit for collaborators to share best practices about their events. So many work to create great events but do not have the ability to learn from each other. This provides the ability to share these practices and have unique conversations about key topics in STEM.
The other end is the Collaborator thank-you event. This is a great party to celebrate the success of the year and provide a fun venue for everyone to convene and work with one another.
Our best marketing overall is distributing our program schedules to 700,000 people. 600,000 of those are directly in schools to students.
Q: What tactics will you expand upon?
A: The key is to work with more communities to take on the brand of the festival in their region the best. They know the territory and best way to reach the population. If we can work with them to support the festival we are able to leverage best practices within each community.
Q: Has social media had a big impact?
A: We have several thousand followers on social media that learn about festival events the quickest. Otherwise, we have found the program schedules and promoting events via regional publications the best way to get the word out.
Q: Most important thing to suggest to peers?
A: Focus on relationships with partners. It’s not about the festival but how the festival can be used as a strategy to build cross disciplinary partnerships between industry, education and community.