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Fun With Science

The annual USA Science & Engineering Festival is meant to be a spark for young minds. 

More than half a million people converged on the National Mall and Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. for two days last fall. They did not come for a political rally or a rock concert. Some were there for the space suits. Some just wanted to play soccer with robots.

It’s true that fun and games were a large part of the first annual USA Science & Engineering Festival on October 23 and 24. At its heart, it was meant to be a celebration—a reorganization of priorities, and a spark for young minds. It followed a Science Fair at the White House the previous week.

“We welcome championship sports teams to the White House to celebrate their victories,” President Barack Obama said during the science fair. “I thought we ought to do the same thing for the winners of science fair and robotic contests and math competitions. Because often we don’t give these victories the attention that they deserve. And when you win first place at a science fair, nobody is rushing the field or dumping Gatorade over your head.”

President Obama believes that the future of America depends on young people conducting experiments, writing software and designing electronics. Fostering these ambitions is more important than ever. The 2006 Programme for International Student Assessment showed that American 15-year-olds ranked 21st in science and 25th in math out of 30 developed countries. For President Obama, this was a call to action. In November 2009, he launched a nationwide Educate to Innovate initiative to bring American students to the top of international rankings within a decade.

Coincidentally, while the President’s initiative was being formed in Washington, D.C., Larry Bock was on the opposite side of the country creating his own educational innovation, which eventually took shape as the USA Science & Engineering Festival. Bock, an entrepreneur who has helped start 40 high-tech and life science companies, was frustrated with not being able to recruit enough skilled workers for his businesses. During a year in Europe, he had seen a large-scale science festival, where young people were excited and engaged in science, technology, engineering and math. This inspired him to build a similar festival in his native San Diego in 2009. With more than 100 events leading up to an expo that drew 200,000 people, he knew he had found a successful model.

One of his sponsors, Lockheed Martin, approached him afterward with a challenge. “They said, ‘Yeah that was fun, but that was just a regional science festival. Let’s see if you can do a national one.’ ” And he did. Lockheed Martin gave half a million dollars as the USA Science & Engineering Festival’s host, and more than 100 other corporate sponsors pitched in, too.

Families made a great showing at the Washington, D.C. expo and at concurrent events in more than 50 locations across America, often with dads and moms getting just as involved in the projects as their kids. In the national capital, people certainly had enough to keep them busy: 550 organizations created 75 stage shows and 1,500 exhibits over two days. In the booths, 3,000 scientists and engineers interacted with the public, showing off solar-powered cars, heart surgery dummies, low-cost water filtration systems and 3-D printers. High school students created soccer-playing robots that children could take turns battling. NASA even brought a real space suit for personal photo shoots.

Bock was overwhelmed by the enthusiasm he saw. “Because there was no pre-registration or ticketing involved, I had no idea how many people would show up until Saturday morning.... There was this pent-up demand by Americans to see science and engineering,” he says. Another festival is planned in the next two years. Bock wants it to involve companies and organizations from other countries.

Nearly a month’s worth of events were held before the expo on the National Mall. To support the core mission of expanding education, the “Nifty Fifty”—a group of academics, business people and researchers—were selected by the Science & Engineering Festival organizers and sent out to elementary and high schools across the United States. They were meant to be role models to illustrate opportunities that a science, technology, engineering or math background can provide. 

Padmanabhan Seshaiyer, an associate professor at George Mason University in Virginia was one of this group. Seshaiyer is a mathematician and electrical engineer educated at BITS Pilani in Rajasthan, and first came to the United States to do his Ph.D. at the University of Maryland. His selection was based not only on his professional success, but his ability to engage young people. In addition to mentoring Ph.D. students and teaching university classes, Seshaiyer works to improve the science and math curricula of middle and high schools in Virginia.

During the summer, he invites teachers to join him on a research project to model an aneurysm in the brain, commonly known as a brain clot. He is seeking to predict when and why an aneurysm may rupture, to determine if surgery is needed. The teachers then bring the applied knowledge back to their classrooms.

“What often happens is...the kids learn it, but they leave high school thinking, ‘How am I going to use this?’ ” he says. “This is something that I have always wanted us to see, how math is applied in real life.” When students learn, for instance, that mathematical models save lives, or that NASA scientists use a particular equation when flying a space shuttle, they are more motivated to learn.

Seshaiyer’s point is well illustrated by the success of Raina Jain, a 16-year-old who was invited to meet President Obama during the White House Science Fair, after she won the 2010 International BioGENEius Challenge. (See box.) When Jain was very young, her father created a home science experiment so she could study her then-favorite thing: candy. They spun sugar crystals into long, thin pieces that circled the entire house, discovering the strength of their internal structures. Jain’s father is a materials scientist, and for him, it was natural to share his passion with his children.

Her science-oriented family has certainly given her a leg up, says Jain. Being able to experience science in a hands-on way sparked her passion for research. In fact, her elder sister, 19-year-old Isha, who won the Intel ISEF science competition in high school in 2007 and a $100,000 scholarship, is now studying at Harvard University.

Meeting the President “was amazing,” Jain says. “I don’t even think it’s yet set in!” He asked questions about the applications of the bio-glass she studied. The honor has made her a minor celebrity; she has appeared on a Pennsylvania television station and in local newspapers. With all these awards and benefits, why aren’t more of her peers interested in science careers? Many are, Jain believes, but school districts often lack resources to give children hands-on experiences. “They just get used to these exams and these tests...but don’t get to see the fun of it,” she says.

A solid grounding in theory is just as important as the critical thinking skills needed for research. In this area, India and other Asian countries excel. National Science Foundation Director Subra Suresh—who was sworn in on the day of the White House Science Fair—reports that the foundation has funded research to help the United States learn from other countries. Researchers have been examining data from the Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study to see how successful foreign classrooms operate, so the best practices can be used in developing U.S. education policy.

“Science is not just about curiosity. Science is very vital to our economic success, it’s very vital to our national security, it’s very vital to our leadership,” says Suresh. Even students who do not pursue science or math careers need a basic knowledge in order to operate the many technologies that are becoming an integral part of society.

Suresh, who received his bachelor’s degree from the Indian Institute of Technology in Chennai, believes that the two countries can learn from each other. “There are some things that are unique and positive about the American education system,” Suresh says. “For example, the students have greater opportunities to learn about real world problems.” At the same time, India “has a long and rich [history of] exploration in science and engineering.... It has produced a lot of high-quality scientists.” 


Sebastian John is an Indian journalist living in Washington, D.C.