Science and the City: Mix of entertainment, education at D.C. festival

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The USA Science and Engineering Festival is in town, so forget the dinosaur dioramas, toss out those paper-mache solar systems, and clean up any sloppy volcanos.

This ain’t your parents’ science fair.

Returning to the District for the third time, the festival gathers hundreds of creative minds and cutting-edge inventions — with a healthy dose of fun — under one roof.

“What we’re trying to do this year is to strike every emotion people might have when it comes to science,” said science festival founder Larry Bock. “Most people might not be interested in the nitty-gritty of science itself, but they are interested in how science affects their lives.”

This year’s festival is being held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, and boasts 1,870 exhibit spaces, 3,000 hands-on activities and 150 stage shows.

Festival-goers can test their skills in flight and cockpit simulators, design objects for 3D printing, and talk with scientists about everything from atoms to outer space.

The stage shows include Discovery Channel host Mike Rowe from the show “Dirty Jobs,” two concerts by the band They Might Be Giants, and a panel of experts — like chemist Donna Nelson — who help Hollywood get its science right.

An organic chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, Ms. Nelson was a science adviser for the AMC show “Breaking Bad,” and said that having more “bridging activities” — whether its TV shows about chemistry teachers-turned-drug dealers or science festivals in a political town — improve people’s perceptions about science.

“It’s extremely important that we get next the generation into science,” she said.

While entertainment is an important part of the festival, organizers don’t hide their goal of recruiting young minds for future science and engineering jobs.

“It’s really for everybody, but our mission is to ignite a love of science,” said Laura Angle, director for the festival’s STEM Education Outreach and Volunteer Program. “Aside from a better appreciation of science is kind of the unspoken mission to get kids to go into these careers and get excited about it.”

The festival technically began Thursday — a day for students interested in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics). Friday offers a sneak peak for pre-registrants. Saturday and Sunday are free and open to the public.

“The whole purpose is to make [science] fun, make it hands on and see what’s exciting about it,” Ms. Angle said. “It’s really exciting to see the changes over the years. How we’re now able to even reach out to areas where there was more of a need that maybe we hadn’t addressed.”

Mr. Bock said this year’s festival emphasizes the importance of a STEM background for skilled trade jobs, robotics and the progress in advanced manufacturing technology like 3D printing.

The District’s first festival in 2010 had roughly 350 participating groups, Mr. Bock said. In 2012, that number jumped to 650, and “is well north of 1,000” this year, he said.

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