Reflections on the ISDC

by guest blogger Ken
Co-chair, 2007 ISDC

So we didn’t get as much local turnout as I would have liked, but there were still hundreds and hundreds of folks (i.e. at least 400) at the conference. The structure imposed by headquarters was that there would be no track programming in the morning against the Big Room, ensuring that it would appear relatively full. In the afternoons these same folks were distributed amongst numerous tracks as well as the Big Room. This was a bit discouraging for some of the tracks, as a larger turnout was expected, but what was really interesting was that there seemed to be about the same number of people in each track room. This tells me that we got the programming pretty spot on, as each track subject seemed to have equal appeal amongst the conference goers.

As noted in the prior update, there were a lot of, but not exclusively, palefaces. The question arose during one of the education panels, and everyone on the panel punted on it because no intelligent person wants to discuss things like race in a public, recorded forum. There is only downside in that equation. So being the complete idiot that I am, and conference co-chair, I decided to pick up the ball and run with it.

I noted that I could only speak anecdotally, but NSS of North Texas has spoken to thousands of people over the past few years that I’ve been associated with them. Working on the front lines you see a lot of the same cultural demographics repeated over and over. I noted that some families, upon seeing our display, will stop, drag their kids over, and won’t leave until the kids ask a least one or two good questions. Other demographics will just keep cruising right on by even after seeing our display. I’m still trying to figure out strategies to hook those particular demographics. Framing the question in the context of cultural demographics also gave the panelists something to work with, so they did help take some of the heat off. It is a legitimate gripe: “Lots of palefaces – where’s everyone else?”

Another gripe that does have merit is that we should have had more stuff on asteroids. This came up even before the conference, and taps into the larger zeitgeist. It’s also why Rusty Schweickart got to do a TV show for the local PBS station, to talk about B612, while NSS just got a radio show (though twice as long). (a pretty good show, by the way) I keep saying that the general public is attuned to asteroids. (a) as a threat, and less so (b) as an opportunity. It’s not just because they’ve seen ‘Deep Impact’ and ‘Armageddon’. It’s because they’ve slowly gathered enough information over to time to recognize that there is something there worth considering. I see it all the time in the questions that I get at public outreach events. I think this is why there is so much fuss over the recent asteroid report from NASA – NASA doesn’t really want to play with asteroids, but the public wants to see asteroids as something that America does in space. If the military ends up picking up the ball on this one I worry that they may end up hiding it to help us ‘feel’ safe. Listen, NASA. Listen to the people who provide your salaries – the American taxpayers.

More on asteroids – I’m gettting weird results over at the Lunar Library. I added entries for all of the great free conference goodies I picked up, and the one item that is generating a large amount of traffic is ‘Exploring Meteorite Mysteries’, a ten-year old NASA educator guide that was handed out as part of the Moon rock certification. The reason it’s weird is that it’s accounting for more than half the traffic to the site just by itself, and having been up only two days at that. Lots of it through e-mail traffic. Even the Braille Moon book (Spanish-language edition) hasn’t had this kind of interest. My highly-tuned bank analyst instincts are telling me there’s something important here. Maybe I should have hitched my wagon to the asteroid movement instead of the Moon movement…

Let’s look at the conference architecture for a moment. Over at Rand’s website, there is some commentary on why the local press dropped the ball on local coverage. (Short answer: It’s my fault, duh…) One comment is that space conferences aren’t fun for the general public. This is something that I took to heart three years ago when we were trying to figure out what kind of program to present. I thought about the many things that I had found cool over the years at various gatherings to which I’d been. Things like financial conferences for work, civic organization gatherings like UNA and Rotaract, and space gatherings like UNISPACE III and WSC. What was the one uniting cool factor? The exhibits and free handouts. Everyone gobbled those up like candy.

This had to be balanced against the need to have people pay to see the really good stuff. Public exhibit space is nice and all, but we need the general public to fork over a few $ to help pay for everything, so they needed to be incentivized to do so. How? By dividing the exhibits into a public access area and a registrant-only area. A member of the general public could show up and wander the free tables and walk away happy with lots of goodies. They could also pay $40 and see things like the Pixel lander from Armadillo Aerospace (thanks!), or a rocket motor from Rocketdyne (not), high powered rockets (thank you DARS!), a CEV mock-up (not), a Bigelow Sundancer mock-up (not), or a LEGO Mars rover (not). The Day Pass would also have covered entry into the tracks, making it a respectable value for the money.

Was this an effective strategy? Hard to tell, as the sample size was really too small. Perhaps next year in DC we’ll have a better turnout of the nice displays, and the DC press will have something of a clue as to what’s going on in their city.

My proudest accomplishment of the conference? Getting Moon Rock certified. This has been something on my agenda for a while, and I wanted to make sure we had it available for our conference goers. I can’t speak for Saturday’s session, but Monday morning’s was packed. Luckily there were some local educators as well, like the nice lady from the UTD Academic Bridge Program, and local teacher hottie Liz. Which helps lay the groundwork for the next projects.

From the chapter perspective our next ‘big’ project is the annual Discovery Fest at the Science Place in Fair Park. This will be our third year with a display, and I’m working with our contact there, museum hottie Summer, to get displays for some of the affiliates who were at the conference as well. I’ve got boxes of leftover handouts crammed in my tiny apartment, so it should be a fun event. It’s also over the July 21-22 weekend, making it a perfect opportunity to celebrate Moon Day.

A project that I’d like to work on is having another Moon Rock training session for local educators. August has been recommended as the best month to do so, which doesn’t give me a lot of lead time. It could be couched within a larger “Moon Fair” at, ideally, the Frontiers of Flight museum, which has a Moon rock on display. First two steps: figure out a curriculum/program, and start beating the bushes for education money. That’s why it pays to develop the local networks, like the educators I noted above.

Hmmm… a Metroplex Moon Fair. I like the sound of that.

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2 Responses to Reflections on the ISDC

  1. Nyarlathotep says:

    Have you considered the demography in the area you held the conference? You may have been seeing an entirely representative sample of the population.

    Go and look up the census for the breakup of anglo, black, hispanic, asian, canadian, etc.

  2. murphydyne says:

    The metroplex has a rich and diverse demography. It is very multi-culti, in spite of its Bible Belt gloss. This can be seen in things like the Polynesian Hoka dance that has been adopted by one of the local high schools with a large number of children of American Airlines baggage handlers. Hookah bars and pastry shops springing up in Richardson/Garland. Mosques dotting the landscape.

    We marketed the conference from Garland to Fort Worth. We didn’t appeal to any particular cultural demographic, nor did we exclude any. Interest in space was the only criteria.

    I have no time to go and look up census data. I see the census data first hand when I’m out doing displays and exhibits. I am curious, though, why Canadians get their own racial tag?

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