How the World Science Foundation Is Elevating Science Education

First Republic Bank
June 21, 2019

At the annual World Science Festival, you can watch a theatrical work about Einstein’s Theory of Relativity, take a 3D-simulated walk across Mars or use AI to make music. It’s far from science as usual — and that’s exactly what festival co-founder Tracy Day wanted.

Day and husband Brian Greene started the World Science Foundation in 2008 with the mission of bringing science to a bigger audience in unexpected formats. Tracy is an Emmy-award-winning broadcast journalist and Brian is an author and professor of physics and math at Columbia University. Both are born storytellers. And they saw a deficit in the staid ways science topics have long been presented, usually via lectures or museum exhibits.

The annual World Science Festival, the organization’s flagship event, was their answer. For nearly two weeks at the end of May, the organization offers inspiring, dynamic and creative ways for people of all ages to dig into science, from lively discussions with renowned experts to multimedia presentations to tours of indoor labs and outdoor watersheds. The organization has also expanded to Australia and started offering mentorships to gifted students, seeding the future of the field.

We caught up with Tracy to talk about the Foundation’s innovative approach to science topics, their plans to expand their digital offerings and why they believe their mission of informing the public about science is more important now than ever.

Tell us how you turned an idea into the first official World Science Festival.

There are public celebrations for almost every area of culture — theatre, film, music, dance and so on — but for science? Back when we started, there really were no major public celebrations, at least not in the United States. Our vision was to incorporate storytelling, to present astonishing scientific insights in unexpected ways and in unexpected places, all the while showcasing the world’s top scientists. We could sense that there was an audience out there, primed and ready for this kind of experience.

We started by building an advisory group of Nobel Laureates, really just to get a first reaction from the very kind of scientists we would want in the Festival. And what a reaction it was. Total enthusiasm. It propelled us forward. We were working 24/7 just because we were so excited. 

Many of your productions combine art and science. How do you do justice to both?

We combine them in two ways. The first is by infusing our main stage programs — conversations and debates on cutting-edge topics — with multimedia elements and performance. In the second approach, we have ventured into theater itself. We were aware from the start that bringing art and science together often lands with a thud. We wanted to stay true to the science, but we wanted to create works that — as art — would stand on their own.

For example, we have a theater production right now that showcases the story of Einstein’s discovery of general relativity called Light Falls. The piece begins like a lecture and then slowly morphs into a highly visual, multimedia performance that includes Tony award-winning actors and artists. PBS will be broadcasting the performance. It’s our first joint broadcast venture and we’re pretty excited. Integrating innovative, scientific discovery with quality arts production sets a high bar, but I think we’re meeting it.

The organization’s growth has been notable.  You've expanded to Brisbane, Australia; grown the festival in New York; created year-round events; and established student-focused programs. How have you managed that expansion? 

With the Australian expansion, they actually came to us. Leaders of the Queensland government and the Queensland Museum had privately attended our festival in New York for years, and from that they felt motivated to do something similar in Brisbane. For us, it was important that they understood who we were, our core values and the brand. That’s what needed to be preserved.

We’ve also launched an initiative called World Science Scholars. The program identifies high school students who excel in math and science, and it brings them together as a community, with a curriculum that we’ve created specifically for them. A lot of these mathematically gifted kids don’t know where their skills can take them in life; their teachers may not even know what to do with them. The goal of this program is to give them a sense of what they can do with their talents, the kinds of challenging ideas and new disciplines they can tackle.

For example, math skills are incredibly valuable in fields of study such as genetics, cancer research, finance, aircraft engineering and more. We pair the students with one-on-one mentors who are luminaries in the field and provide online experiences with researchers who, twenty or thirty years ago, were just like these kids. We have two cohorts now, with 75 students total. They have the opportunity to see the festival firsthand and join a community of like-minded, enormously talented math and science enthusiasts. As they explore their interests, we aim to follow their progress and offer up pathways where their genius can flourish. 

If people want to be involved but can’t attend the festival, what options do they have?

We put so much work into the programs and we don’t want to limit the audience to just those who can come to New York for the festival. And so, we record our productions and distribute the content on our website and on YouTube. We’ve stayed away from cutting the content up into short segments and, gratifyingly, we’re finding that people stick with the long-form pieces. We also just built a dedicated film studio and will be producing more video content specifically for digital distribution.

You and Brian started the World Science Foundation 12 years ago. When you look back, what are you most proud of?

We’re most proud of the fact that we took a unique approach. It was risky, but we tapped into a need and built something that has longevity. I remember when we began, we worked with a consulting company — pro bono — who suggested we take the word “science” out of our name because they said it was off-putting. People also suggested we start in a smaller town, but for us it had to be New York. We saw a huge opportunity in partnering with the city’s cultural and academic institutions, proudly trumpeting science in both name and content.  We wanted the city to be a playground for science exploration. New York doesn’t think of itself as a science capital of the world, but it is. Once we started talking to people, we were able to get them aligned with the vision, and it took off.

How have you kept the World Science Foundation relevant for more than a decade?

We behave, act and think just like a fast-paced but well-designed start-up company — one that is focused on a mission over profit. We need to innovate, we need to assess where our audience is, how to get to them, how to impact them, and how to make them committed to the product we’re providing. We can’t just be earnest and think we’re doing good for the world because it’s hard to survive by mission alone. You need to be constantly creating new opportunities to take your mission to a higher level.

Header photo by Greg Kessler, courtesy of World Science Festival

The views and opinions expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of First Republic Bank.