- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 24, 2014

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.

“My goal in life is I won’t have to pick up the phone, people will come to us,” he added. “I think we’ve just hit that crossover point. We filled up every last inch of space of the Washington Convention Center.”

An entrepreneur at heart, Mr. Bock said the idea for the festival came to him through his travels, where he saw international versions of the festival.

“I thought it was such a great idea,” he said. “We originally started by creating the San Diego Science Festival. That was a huge success.”

Afterward, representatives of defense contractor Lockheed Martin approached Mr. Bock and said they were interested in taking the festival to a national level.

“Probably one of the stupidest things I’ve said in my life was Washington, D.C., is not a science city,” Mr. Bock said with a laugh. “In fact, it’s an ideal place to do it because of all the professional science and engineering societies in D.C. Most of the government agencies and most major corporations have headquarters there. It ended up being one of the few places people from around the country would come to participate.”

And while the festival is an opportunity to showcase about the newest technology and research, the event gives scientists an opportunity to learn, as well.

Ms. Angle said presenters are challenged to communicate in a way that’s understandable to more than just their lab colleagues.

“If you want people to fund you, appreciate you, communicate in way they can understand,” Ms. Angle said. “As they’ve seen, it really helped them understand people got more excited if they could understand what they were doing.”

Ms. Nelson echoed those sentiments, saying the barrier between the lab and the general public has been a significant one, but is on its way to being overcome.

“Scientists often do not have to get out and interact with the public,” she said. “What happened was kids were getting the wrong perspective. They weren’t going into science. We started falling behind, we had not recruited the next generation. Enough people have become concerned to try to correct it. I think that perception is being corrected now and I’m very happy to see it.”

If You Go:

What: The USA Science and Engineering Festival

When: 9 a.m. — 6 p.m. April 26 & 27

Where: Walter E. Washington Convention Center, 801 Mt. Vernon Pl. NW, Washington, D.C. 20001

Cost: Free

How to get there: Mt. Vernon Square/7th St.-Convention Center Metro station, Green and Yellow Lines



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