Tens of thousands of people flocked to Washington, D.C., in October for the first USA Science and Engineering Festival and Expo, whose mission is to stimulate young people's interest in science, technology, engineering, and math. With tents and stages spanning the National Mall and beyond, many families made their way past dancing robots, a space capsule of the future, and mobile laboratories to the NAS-NAE-IOM tent, dubbed "Because Dreams Need Doing," where they rode a "light-cycle" into the digital world of a Hollywood movie, became virtual brain surgeons, and learned about evolution.
The National Academy of Engineering partnered with Disney to bring "TRON: Legacy" to the festival. The popular exhibit "was well worth the 20-minute wait," said a 9-year-old exiting the booth. The concept behind the exhibit was to blend themes from the movie with the NAE's Grand Challenges --"game changing" engineering goals for the 21st century. Performing surgery on a computer-generated image of a real brain, and 3-D laser scanning and light painting were all part of an interactive experience designed to demonstrate how movie fantasy is intersecting with the real world.
Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood also paid a visit to the tent, specifically its driving-simulator exhibit "Stayin' Alive." The simulator allowed “drivers” to safely experience distractions such as phone calls and texting and see the dangers they pose on the road. LaHood spoke to the crowd about the Department of Transportation's campaign to stop distracted driving, offered tips for safe driving etiquette, and shook the hands of many eager kids.
Fascinating talks by Nobel Prize winners along with many others were the centerpiece of the tent's activities. NPR's Joe Palca interviewed Nobelists John Mather and Peter Agre, both members of the National Academy of Sciences; Agre is a member of the Institute of Medicine as well. Mather spoke of his childhood and education and what inspired him to learn more about the universe. When asked what makes a good scientist, Mather replied, "Persistence is essential." He added that curiosity and alertness are also important: "The nature of science is that something might turn up that you didn't expect." Also on the tent's stage were talks about the chemistry of food, forensic anthropology, and separating fact from fiction on the TV show "CSI: Miami" in which writers from the show analyzed scenes.
Noise from games and challenges for kids rang throughout the tent for two days. "Animal, Vegetable, or Mineral: 20 Questions" allowed kids to learn about pollinators, plants, and minerals, and win a prize. "Take the Energy Challenge" taught kids about energy sources and choices. The "Evolution Thought Trail" encouraged kids to discuss inherited variations, natural selection, and geological changes as they travelled to six different booths. And NAS Cultural Programs teamed up with media artist Lee Boot on "Youreka! See Intuit," which explored what intuition is and how it works.
While inspiring kids to become scientists or engineers may take more than one tent at one event, the Academies' efforts reached more than 11,000 people and might motivate some of them to make their dreams reality. -- Maureen O'Leary