National Science and Engineering Festival Aims to Inspire Youths

By Erik W. Robelen — April 28, 2014 6 min read
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Flying robot musicians. A virtual welding exhibit. A model brain the size of a car engine. An F-35 fighter simulator. The indie rock band They Might Be Giants singing about astrophysics and biology. Oh, and lots of 3-D printers. More than you’ll probably ever see in one place.

These were among the attractions designed to get young people excited about STEM at the third USA Science and Engineering Festival held here this past weekend at the massive Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Hundreds of exhibits large and small were on display, often inviting youths and families for a decidedly hands-on experience in getting exposed to science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. The event also featured some 150 stage shows. And as you wandered around, you might even bump into the likes of Archimedes, Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein, and other seminal figures in the history of the STEM fields happy to chat and answer your questions (historic re-enactors, of course).

[UPDATE (12:21 p.m.): In all, more than 325,000 visitors attended the festival, which spanned five large exhibit halls, according to a spokeswoman for the event.]

“We don’t celebrate science and engineering” in the United States, said Larry Bock, a high-tech entrepreneur and the founder of the event. “I wanted to put on the largest celebration of science and engineering. ... We’re really giving it a showcase.”

During his career, he said, “I could not recruit Americans to the advanced science positions of the companies I was starting up. And I fundamentally believe you get what you celebrate.”

While the festival seeks to attract people of all ages, “toddlers to grandparents,” Bock said, the chief target is “middle and high school kids and their families.”

Discovering ‘Different Avenues’

The nonprofit College Tribe, a Washington-based group that describes its mission as “black men mentoring black boys to become STEM leaders,” brought more than a dozen students.

“This science and engineering festival is great for us,” said William Willis, the senior STEM instructor for the organization, which works with students in grades 3-8 to foster a focus on getting to college and studying in the STEM fields. “It shows the boys different avenues they can take. You have the colleges. You have the career paths.”

More than 1,200 organizations participated in this year’s festival, organizer Bock said, roughly double the number from the 2012 festival.

They run the gamut. Corporations like Lockheed Martin, Chevron, and Caterpillar. About 200 universities and colleges, including the University of Maryland, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory, the University of California, San Diego, and the U.S. Naval Academy. Federal agencies like the National Science Foundation, NASA, and the National Institutes of Health. And some 375 professional science and engineering societies covering every imaginable subject area: plant biology, astronomy, civil engineering, genetics, marine technology, nanotechnology, mathematical biology, neuroscience, mycology, aerospace engineering, and on and on.

I spied a race car on display over at the exhibit area for the Universal Technical Institute, which operates about a dozen campuses across the country for training professional technicians in the automotive, diesel, motorcycle, and marine industries, including those who end up working in professional car racing.

Its message was to promote a better understanding of the science, technology, engineering, and math that are integral to those occupations, and about the robust job market in the technical fields the institute focuses on.

“We train specifically for 33 different manufacturers,” said Jerry Ellner, UTI’s national director of high school development. They include Ford, Harley-Davidson, Mercedes Benz, and Porsche, to name a few.

What STEM Is Not

In his organization’s outreach to schools, Ellner said, “we talk about STEM. We talk about STEM careers.” As part of that effort, he added, “we want them to understand what STEM is, and what STEM is not.”

So, of course, I asked what STEM is not.

“STEM in not teaching in silos,” Ellner told me. “If I’m taking a science class, a technology, class, a pre-engineering class, and a math class, that does not make me a STEM student. STEM has to combine at least two or more of the STEM [subjects] into a problem-solving environment.”

Shea Stickler, UTI’s marketing director, said institute representatives visit about 10,000 high school every year.

He notes that today’s cars are complicated machines. “A new car has dozens of computer chips, sensors, actuators, ... safety systems, fuel systems,” he said. “So it takes a technician today, not just a wrench turner, to work on cars.”

Meanwhile, a far more modest display was offered by St. Cloud State University, in St. Paul, Minn. Visitors are asked to predict from a set of miniature wind turbines (smaller than your hand) for wind energy the one that would be most efficient. Then, a small fan was turned on to investigate.

All of the blades were designed by St. Cloud students on a 3-D printer, explained Nancy Sundheim, a professor in the math and statistics area at the university.

She noted that math is key to the best design. “I go out in the garage and I make something spin,” she said. “But if I want to optimize, I turn to math to help me get the most out of it.”

Getting the Word Out

In another huge exhibit hall, Lockheed Martin had some 75 different exhibits, including simulators for F-35 and F-22 fighter jets, a helicoptor, and a whole section on nanotechnology.

On a far smaller scale was the bioengineering exhibit from UC-San Diego. It did have a catchy cardboard cutout of Captain America, plus visuals of other superheroes.

“Some of the superhero movies, they definitely have references to bioengineering,” said Ivneet Bhullar, a graduate student in the university’s program. Although much of what those movies offer may be a stretch, some of the concepts may not be so far out of reach, he said.

“It’s really about getting the word out about bioengineering,” he said. “We want to let people know that the discipline is out there and show them what they can accomplish in bioengineering.”

Bhullar also made the point about STEM education not being about silos.

“It’s really the perfect integration of STEM, I would say,” he told me. “It’s important for a lot of the bright young minds to be channeled toward this field.”

And then, too, there was some rock ‘n’ roll star power to help fuel the excitement, courtesy of They Might Be Giants. (The band in recent years has taken a rather successful detour into the children’s-music market.)

Some of you may recall a couple of their classics, such as “Meet the Elements” (“Iron is a metal, you see it every day. Oxygen eventually will make it rust away”) and “Science Is Real.”

Science is real, from anatomy to geology Science is real, from astrophysics to biology A scientific theory isn't just a hunch or a guess It's more like a question, that's been put through a lot of tests.

Robert Abercrombie, the youth director at Valley Brook Community Church in Columbia, Md., brought several young people of middle and high school age to the festival on Saturday.

When I met him, he was over at the large exhibit offered by the educational-toy company K’Nex, which had displays of miniature roller coasters and ferris wheels, plus lots of stations where young people could start building their own creations (think plastic Tinker Toys). One of the youths from Valley Brook was working on a motorcycle of sorts.

What brought the Valley Brook contingent here?

“It was more to just expose them to all the different areas that science, mathematics, and technology can actually benefit them,” Abercrombie told me. “I love it. To expose them to the different areas, to allow them to see from the science perspective what’s going on with the brain, some of the crazy computers and robots, and then ... to get hands-on.”

Photos: In top photo, Nancy Sundheim from St. Cloud State University demonstrates model wind turbines. Second photo, of race car, was part of the United Technical Institute exhibit. Third image shows a model of a brain in Exhibit Hall E. In final image, Maureen Kratz of K’Nex works with children to race miniature car models. Photos by Erik Robelen.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.