Peter Sheldon should have spent Thursday kicking off the 16th-annual Randolph College Science Festival known as SciFest.
On the first day of the weekend-long, community event, high school students from Lynchburg and the surrounding counties would have visited campus; James Kakalios, Taylor Distinguished Professor of Physics at the University of Minnesota and author of 'The Physics of Superheroes,' would have delivered his keynote address, and the regional high school science teacher award would have been presented.
Instead, Sheldon, the director of SciFest and a professor of physics and engineering at Randolph College, spent Thursday in the dimly lit Martin Science Building on an eerily quiet campus.
SciFest was slated to be one of the biggest events of 2020 for the college. Last year, some 3,500 people attended. But, amid the threat of the novel coronavirus pandemic, campus has been closed, students sent home and the event canceled. Some activities have been rescheduled for later in the fall while others will occur virtually over the next few weeks.
“We didn’t have a choice this year,” Sheldon said. “It wasn’t safe to hold it, but we’re doing what we can to still bring science to the community despite that.”
Bringing people together
SciFest started in 2005 as a single-day event full of hands-on science activities for children in third through sixth grades. In 2009, as those students began aging out, Sheldon said he was inspired to expand the program to be a full weekend of activities for participants of all ages.
Every year since, the festival has grown.
The festival is now a weekend-long program with activities for all age groups in the greater-Lynchburg area, including a keynote speaker, alumni events, panel discussions, a poetry contest and, of course, science experiments for the kids.
Sheldon said 43 kids participated in SciFest in 2005. Now, the free registration for the Science Day portion of the festival is limited to 700 kids – 400 third through sixth graders and 300 3-to-7-year-olds.
The entire weekend, Sheldon said, impacts 4,000 to 5,000 community members. All events are free and open to the public, but some events require registration to limit the number of participants, such as the kids’ science activities.
“It’s a big deal to cancel it, but everything that’s going on right now is a big deal,” Sheldon said. “It’s a small thing in the scheme of things.”
This year, James Kakalios, author of “The Physics of Superheroes” was set to deliver the keynote address. His address has instead been rescheduled for 2021, as well as the Women in Science panel discussion that was scheduled for Friday.
Science Day for the kids was scheduled for Saturday, but the in-person event was canceled. Any activities that can continue virtually, Sheldon said, will occur later in the spring and summer of this year.
More than 800 K-12 students from Lynchburg and the surrounding counties submitted entries for this year’s math- and science-based poetry competition. Typically, finalists are invited to read their submissions on campus at the festival. This year, Sheldon said he is attempting to get all students who submitted entries to submit videos reading their submissions so the reading can be held virtually.
“It’s not going to replace the on-campus reading, we’re still going to do that in-person when we can,” Sheldon said. “Those students who are finalists need to be honored and it’s just not the same if we don’t do it in person.”
Almost one-third of Randolph College’s student body volunteers to help with SciFest, Sheldon said. This year, Randolph students will be recording their activities and experiments so they can be posted online for the community to view.
“We have 170 student volunteers each year,” Sheldon said. “It’s the largest outreach event the campus does, and it’s the biggest event the campus does. We couldn’t do it without them. There’s plenty of faculty and staff involved, too, but it’s mostly run by the students.”
Sunday’s Maker Faire has been postponed. The new date has not been set.
“The whole idea of the Science Festival is bringing people together,” Sheldon said. “It’s about bringing together people who are curious and creative and love science and want to learn. When we couldn’t do that, we had to postpone it until we could.”
Sheldon said the intimacy of the in-person event is what made it successful.
“There’s something about everyone looking up from their phones and exploring and learning together that just brings people together,” he said.
Kid-friendly experiments to try at home
Randolph College chemistry professor Ann Fabirkiewicz said plenty of the activities at SciFest can be replicated at home.
“These are tried and true projects that we’ve done with many groups of kids,” Fabirkiewicz said. “And they’re good projects to do at home.”
Fabirkiewicz said she’s been involved with SciFest for a number of years and hopes children take time to be creative and curious and explore the science that is right at home.
Fabirkiewicz challenged children to create their own natural paints using fruits, grass, flowers and creativity. With a few crushed blueberries, boiled onion skins and a Q-tip, a masterpiece can be painted on a blank piece of paper.
Fabirkiewicz urged children to go outside and get creative about what they can extract color from.
Sheldon suggested three engineering design projects children can complete with various household items.
Using a toy car and creative padding, children can experiment with how they might use cotton balls, paper, Popsicle sticks and more to protect a raw egg inside the car when pushed down a ramp.
Children can get creative by building a car out of ping-pong balls, skewers, straws or whatever materials they have lying around. Then, by configuring a balloon on top of the car and using a straw to blow it up, the car will move across the floor as the balloon’s air is released. Kids can compete to see who’s car goes farthest or fastest.
Using paper plates, cardboard boxes and “a whole lot of scotch tape,” Sheldon said kids can create a marble roller coaster and experiment to see how long the marble can stay on the track.
“Wherever you are right now, you can still celebrate science,” Sheldon said.
Fabirkiewicz and Sheldon sat down with The News & Advance to share some kids-friendly experiments and activities involving common items that can be found in your home. Video demonstrations can be found at newsadvance.com.