Science Fest brings scientists, community together

Leon Mire, Associate News Editor

Community members from around Coles County joined at Science Fest to advocate for education and local engagement in the sciences.

Sponsored by the newly formed group Coles for Science, it began with a brief march, with many attendees holding signs with sayings such as, “What do we want? Evidence-based science! When do we want it? After peer review!”

After the march, attendees could participate in a variety of science demonstrations and hands-on activities.

One was a table where children could take home and grow their own lima beans in a plastic container and a drawing of a house that they could color in, with a plastic window for viewing.

Megan Laughton, a senior special education major, said since the lima beans grow very quickly, it is an ideal way for children to see how a seed sprouts and learn about gardening.

Several students from Charleston High School, participating through student council, tabled a station for creating a plant terrarium in a plastic bottle.

Senior Riley Cutright said the terrarium is a good way to get people interested in plants, which is important because plants are crucial to the ecosystem and people’s everyday lives.

Ryan He, a 10-year-old student at Jefferson Elementary School, displayed a poster explaining how 3-D printing works, alongside a 3-D printer given to him by his cousin.

He often creates models from scratch using Fusion360, a computer-aided design program and attended workshops at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign to learn more about the program.

His father, chemistry professor Hongshan He, said his son was by far the youngest person in attendance at the workshops.

He said he wants someday to use 3-D printing as a marine engineer.

“But for now, I’m just having fun with it,” he said.

Biological sciences professor Eric Bollinger led a group of adults and children on a bird-watching walk along the lake and through the woods, lending each person a pair of binoculars.

Bird-watching is one of the best examples of citizen science, Bollinger said, where non-scientists can contribute data to be analyzed by scientists.

“If you record your observations and upload them to an online database like eBird, scientists can use that data to learn about range expansions or contractions associated with global warming,” he said.

The group found little initial success in spotting any birds.

“Usually the way it works, you can hear them easily, but you can’t see them,” Bollinger said.

To coax birds out of their hiding spots, he made a noise that sounds like “pish” repeated over and over – hence the name of the technique, pishing.

Bollinger said the noise provokes the birds’ curiosity.

Shannon Regan, a graduate student studying biological sciences, was one of many participating in “Ask a Scientist,” where students and professors wore shirts with their field of study and answered questions about it.

Regan wore a shirt saying, “I study ornithology. Ask me anything.”

She said Science Fest is a good way to get people to relate to and engage with scientists.

“They can get more of a personal feel to the science, not just ‘Here’s some facts, let me throw them at you and tell you they’re true,’” she said.

Glen Davis, an English professor at Lake Land College, presented on how the scientific method could be applied to hunting.

“I think the scientific method covers a lot of things … It’s just the idea of asking questions and collecting data and research, so that you can do things better,” he said. “People get scared of science, they think science is difficult. But it doesn’t have to be.”

Iffat Ali, a chemistry teacher at Lake Land College, said she wants to help combat misconceptions about her profession, especially the negative associations the word “chemical” has for many people.

“Not all chemicals are bad. And even good chemicals in high amounts can be bad,” she said.

Shelley Epperson, a retired Mattoon High School biology teacher, represented the group Coles Progressives, which she said seemed like a natural transition from science education.

“People can get overwhelmed trying to affect things on a national level, but you can be quite effective on the local level,” Epperson said.

Some groups attended for explicitly political purposes, such as members of the Coles County Green Party. One member, Keith Wilson, a retired psychology professor, said he came to Science Fest because he believes science education is important for children.

“I’m afraid that’s under attack nationwide … and I don’t believe our current administration or its supporters takes climate change seriously. Most of them are deniers,” he said.

Wilson said he does not understand why so many people are reluctant to be environmental stewards.

“(The Earth) is a gift from God that we’ve been handed, and we need to take care of it and nurture it and not see it as simply something to be exploited,” he said.

Macy Rinehart, a freshman physics major, said she was pleased with the turnout for Science Fest, especially considering the chilly weather and projected rain.

She said she hopes Coles for Science will make this an annual event.


Leon Mire can be reached at 581-2812 or [email protected].