A Coast-to-Coast Festival Infused with Innovation

Shout out to ieee-usa today's engineer for their post on the Festival!!

By Robin Peress

What happens when you combine the best minds in STEM education with best practices in entrepreneurship? One striking result is the forthcoming USA Science & Engineering Festival, whose special events will blanket the country in October and culminate in a two-day exhibition bash on Washington, D.C.'s National Mall.

The human comet behind this tour-de-force is Lawrence A. Bock, a San Diego-based serial entrepreneur (by his own description), who said he took many of the rules for launching a successful start-up and applied them to planning and executing this vast educational showcase.

"I kept the burn rate low," Bock said recently in a phone conversation. "I had a clear business plan, kept the organization lean and mean, enlisted the world's experts, outsourced logistics, marketing and other functions in order to have little or no overhead, knew how to attract investors, and I knew what its success would look like."

Bock's curriculum vitae describes a passionate career as a venture capitalist and seed-stage investor in some 40 high technology and life sciences companies concerned with biofuels, nanotechnology, smart materials and renewable energy, among other specializations. Some of these fields will make an appearance in Festival programs, as well as green chemistry, bio-mimicry, ecology and conservation.

The seeds for the USA Science & Engineering Festival were sown during Bock's year abroad in such countries as Germany and Japan, where he saw science being celebrated through lectures, hands-on activities, contests, theater, poetry, music and art. He became determined to bring the same kind of experience to the United States.

"I saw other festivals in Europe and Asia, and wanted to try it here. In San Diego [the Inaugural San Diego Science Festival, which Bock launched as executive director in spring 2009], the exhibitors were all local and there was only one sponsor, the CTO of Lockheed-Martin. With the USA festival, we are hosting organizations who are coming from around the country and around the world. At the same time we are having 50 satellite events. I view this as a grassroots collaboration."

The Festival's top-echelon advisors, sponsors and partners have been drawn from the vanguard of high technology and life sciences companies as well as universities, colleges, research institutions, government agencies, federal laboratories, professional science and engineering societies -- of which IEEE-USA is an obvious counterpart -- and industry associations. It kicks off on 10 October at the University of Maryland, College Park campus with Powers of Ten: A Journey in Song from Quark to Cosmos, featuring science songs by composer David Haines and more than 200 young singers from the DC area.

Other events leading up to the two-day Mall exhibition include the Build a Solar-Powered Robot Kit on 15 October at DeVry University in Arlington, Va.; Lower Your Emissions and Raise Your Veggies -- a presentation and school garden tour on 19 October at Thurgood Marshall Academy in Washington; a one-woman stage performance about the life of Marie Curie on 21 October at the National Museum of Health and Medicine; and on 22 October, a Math Walking Tour in and around the National Mall, hosted by Glen Whitney of the Museum of Mathematics.

The build-up culminates in the grand Expo on 23-24 October, with some 1,500 free exhibits and hands-on activities and 50 stage shows designed to leave no scientific stone unturned and no age group disappointed. IEEE-USA President Evelyn Hirt said that IEEE-USA jumped at the opportunity to be a part of the Festival. "This event is about getting the next generation of young innovators excited about science and engineering, and at the same time, expanding the public's appreciation and understanding of science and technology. Whether you meet an astronaut, use technology to solve a crime scene mystery, or play soccer with robots, it should make a powerful impression on those who participate."

Dusty Fisher, chairperson of IEEE-USA's Pre-College Education Committee, has taken the reins of the IEEE-USA booth, employing both history and razzle-dazzle to draw in curious minds. An electrotechnology timeline from the IEEE Global History Network, courtesy of Michael Geselowitz, will share space with laser lights that change color, an autonomous robot, flashing sequential lights, specially designed bookmarks, even t-shirts for sale.

"We'll also have a dynamo attached to an incandescent bulb so that visitors can see how hard it is to light it," said Fisher. The history timeline shows up-to-the-minute innovations including the iPod and iPhone.

Quietly doing its part to promote the USA Science & Engineering Festival is the organization's Web site, www.usasciencefestival.org. Not just any compilation of information, the site is remarkably interactive and flexible, allowing students to search for subjects of interest to them, as well as their age group, and get back a tailor-made list of events and exhibits. The heading called Satellite Events opens up a map of science and engineering events taking place around the country, expanding the site user's horizons to big and small locales including San Antonio, Chicago, Pocatello, Id., Jacksonville, Fla., and Corning, N.Y. In a section called KidZone, a fun and colorful tutorial with detailed illustrations on the mechanical mysteries of Rubik's Cube will challenge and mesmerize young, and maybe not so young, brains. (Adults: do not attempt this without a cool compress for your forehead.)

"I put a lot of thought into the navigation, flow and content, trying to see it from the perspective of someone who does not know anything about the Festival and wants to find all pertinent information instantly," said Ruth Kiefer, the Festival's co-executive director. "The exhibits and performances pages are database-driven, so as exhibitors log into our online Partner Portal and make changes to their exhibit descriptions, the changes appear instantly on the site. It's the same with Satellite Event additions and Calendar items. We have a great design firm, MORRIS, based in San Diego, who developed the graphics, and our web team, Intellisparx, executed our plan."

A final question was posed to Bock about the different public perceptions surrounding scientists and engineers, with the latter often getting less fanfare for their achievements. Would a giant event like the USA Science & Engineering Festival blur the distinction? "I totally agree that engineers are underappreciated," he said. "The difference between a scientist and an engineer is that scientists only have to get the thing to work once [to publish a paper], while engineers have to get 99 percent of them to work perfectly. They need a whole different set of skills and capabilities to take basic science and make it of value to society."


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