Guest Blog by Festival X-STEM Speaker Dr. Joe Schwarcz
How do you inspire students toward careers in science, and combat scientific illiteracy at the same time?
First, you spend two years planning the USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest of its kind in the world. Then you rent the gigantic Washington Convention Center to host it and line up 3,000 displays, many of which feature hands-on activities.
You organize more than 150 stage presentations by Nobel laureates, athletes, astronauts, engineers and scientists of all kinds. You invite the likes of Bill Nye the Science Guy, National Institutes of Health director Francis Collins, famous sleight-of-hand artist Apollo Robbins and the consultants for Breaking Bad, Big Bang Theory and House to address the crowds. You highlight appearances by Crystal Lee (Miss California) and the Science Cheerleaders, a contingent dedicated to motivating girls to study science. And you don’t charge a penny for drenching the public with this remarkable dose of concentrated knowledge and entertainment.
I’ve seen science museums all over the world, and been to numerous science fairs and festivals — but I can honestly say that I have never experienced anything like this festival in Washington that I attended late last month.
Talk about being like a kid in a candy shop.
What to do, what to see; that was the problem. I had read a lot about 3-D printers but had never seen one in action, so that seemed like a good place to start. What amazing devices these are. You design an object on a computer, press start, and you begin to see it constructed in front of your eyes as instead of ink, the printer dispenses molten plastic, building up the object layer by layer. I now possess a comb made of polylactic acid that was “printed” in front of my eyes. That’s nothing, though, in comparison with the next steps in 3-D printing that were being demonstrated — printers that mete out layers of different cells to build up organs. The world’s first printed liver is expected to be unveiled within a year for experimental purposes.
Another printer was cranking out colour-coded interlocking pieces of plastic to be used in the building of a model of DNA. What an amazing blend of engineering, chemistry and biology. I watched as young students learned to assemble nucleotides while experts explained transcription and translation. Genetic modification came alive in front of their eyes. These kids were on their way to understanding the nuances of this technology, making them less likely to swallow the misinformation being parroted by many anti-GMO activists. At a nearby booth, they had the chance to carry out some experiments with real DNA. Simple and elegant. Just place a strawberry inside a Ziplock bag and smash it with your hands until it is pulverized, rupturing its cells. Filter into a test tube and add a bit of alcohol to precipitate the DNA that can then be drawn out in a threadlike form.
Robots were everywhere. Large ones were playing basketball, smaller versions were dancing with remarkably human-like moves, and others were building bridges. Some kids had a “feet-on” experience with non-Newtonian fluids as they scampered across pools filled with a corn-starch solution. Others were climbing through a mock-up of the Orion spaceship, the next generation of spacecraft, or were exploring a giant Walmart truck with its aerodynamic, energy-saving design. There were plenty of opportunities to learn about wind power, solar cells, the science of football, antimatter, “bubbleology” and radioactivity.
Onlookers were surprised to discover that Brazil nuts and bananas are radioactive, due to naturally occurring radon and potassium-40 respectively. Just imagine if activists like the Food Babe ever learned about that. Would we have petitions to ban these foods because of irrelevant traces of radioactivity? And I wonder what Banana Girl, a self-styled diet guru who eats 30 bananas a day, would say?
I doubt that Food Babe or Banana Girl were at the science festival, but they should have been. They would have experienced science that is based on evidence and proper risk-benefit analysis rather than Internet drivel.
They could have learned something from Crystal Lee, Miss California, who is a graduate of Stanford University with a degree in human biology and is dedicated to encouraging young women to focus on science and math. If they take this advice, they are unlikely to make ludicrous comments about miso soup eliminating radioactivity, as our pal the Food Babe maintains. She also opines that she would not purchase any soy products “that have been extracted with a very carcinogenic gas called hexane.” Hexane is not classified as a possible carcinogen and it is not a gas, as anyone versed in science would know.
The Science Cheerleaders were also turning people on to science, not by cheering, but by being role models. These young ladies are all cheerleaders for professional teams — and all have degrees in science. I had the pleasure of meeting Margaret, who is completing a PhD in chemistry at the University of Maryland, where she is investigating gold nanoparticles in the treatment of cancer.
I don’t think Margaret would agree with the Food Babe about the “dangers” of microwave ovens. The Babe buys into Masaru Emoto’s thesis that microwaved water does not form beautiful crystals but rather ones that are similar to water that was exposed to the words “Satan,” or “Hitler.” She does say that this “fact” is probably too hokey for most people, but apparently not for her, “because sometimes the things we can’t see with the naked eye or even fully comprehend could be the most powerful way to unlock spontaneous healing.”
Perhaps the reason the USA Science & Engineering Festival impressed me so much is because it hooks people on real science. There were no booths promoting miracle dietary supplements; there was no talk of non-existent molecules leaving an imprint in water; there were no global-warming deniers and no speakers suggesting that GMOs were paving a road to hell.
Instead, we had Amanda Boxtel, a young lady who was paralyzed after a skiing accident demonstrating how she can now walk with the help of a remarkable “exoskeleton,” and Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, describing how many top scientists were first captivated by science through an early hands-on experience. I’m betting that there will be a good number of future scientists who will look back on this outstanding festival as the spark that eventually burst into the flame of discovery.