Beakerhead: Education coefficient needs improvement?

Richard White, September 14, 2014

Beakerhead's premise of a smash-up festival of science, engineering and art is perfect for Calgary with its plethora of engineers, geologists, software developers and IT people and our lust to become an international cultural centre.

However, what I saw (based on visiting a couple of sites during the day, one lecture and following many twitter feeds) was lots of sizzle (literally, it seemed to be all about the fire), but not a lot of substance.  I think I have some qualifications to make this statement as I have a MSc, have published scientific papers (all be it many decades ago) and for the past 30 years, I have been part of Calgary’s cultural scene.

Maybe I am old school, but when I went to the Stampede Grounds' smash-up site, I was expecting something more challenging and educational.  What I found was a playground full of loud adolescent students (I understand there are over 20,000 students participating in various Beakerhead events) having a lot of fun, but I am not sure what they were learning about art, science or engineering.  Back story: I also have experience establishing curriculum-based education programs. I didn’t see any notes being taken, no didactic information and no guided programs - it seemed like a free-for-all.

I didn’t see much that was challenging from an art, science or engineering perspective either. A solar-powered bike isn’t exactly new or innovative, neither is a warming hut with a wood stove or a couple of mini-homes. Although I was invited to drop by the site by an artist, I have no idea where the art was. It was more like a trade show. 

Maybe I just chose the wrong place and time as some of the evening pics on twitter looked much more animated and visually interesting.  

This fun, multi-armed robot was perhaps the most photographed and tweeted image of the festival (Photo Credit: Elred Naxela)

The burning man, as I called it, was very popular at the Stampede Grounds. Later learned it was The Gee Gnome, which explains the tacky pink flamingos, sand and fence; this was suppose to be a front yard setting with a fun gnome. I think? 

Net Blow-up created in Austria is billed the first self-supporting, climbable structure in the world.This spider web climbing structure was popular at the East Village site. (Photo Credit: Elred Naxela) 
 

A ride in the solar-powered tricycle was fun and probably second to the robot as the most photographed object.

A ride in the solar-powered tricycle was fun and probably second to the robot as the most photographed object.

The Spirit House by artist Califoria Jayson Fann is like a human-sized birdhouse turned on its side. It was only later in reading the Calgary Herald that I learned this was an art project as there was no information available that I could find. Maybe there was an App?

The Spirit House by artist Califoria Jayson Fann is like a human-sized birdhouse turned on its side. It was only later in reading the Calgary Herald that I learned this was an art project as there was no information available that I could find. Maybe there was an App?

These youth seemed to be having fun throwing the big dice up in the air and playing the classic game of snakes and ladders.

This tiny house/shed was cute but not really innovative. Yes, you could live in the space, but it really is no different than one of those summer trailer vacation homes that have been around for decades. 

Love the idea of warming huts that Winnipeg has implemented along the river at The Forks.  Good tourism plug for Winnipeg, but where is the science or the art?  Each winter The Forks has a call for proposals from designers to create unique warming huts like this one.

Low-tech, old school fun! 

Last Word

An old equation states "enlightenment = engagement + entertainment + education." I would say Beakerhead's engagement and entertainment value is very high, but there is an opportunity to enhance the educational coefficient.

Reader's comments:

CC wrote: "good points, seems a bit weak on the theory." 

CA wrote: "Beakerhead in Banff was about art and intellect. Now about spending grant money for a show. Still cool but has lost it's way."

JG wrote:  "My Grade 5 daughter and my husband went to Beakerhead on Saturday night. Their assessment is that it did meet expectations. Apparently, a U of C researcher was on site explaining the construction and mechanics of the fire-octopus. Also an explanation of laser cat and the collection of art that it shot out of its eyes. Perhaps the multiple venues and duration of events led to inconsistency of experience, but that's also a bonus as it allowed many people to take it in over a 5 day period. At the very least, it was able to draw Calgarians into different neighbourhoods they may otherwise not have a chance to visit."

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