Celebrating the Fun of Science by Alan Ladwig

Official Portrait Alan M. LadwigGuest Blog by Alan Ladwig
USA Science & Engineering Festival Emcee  and Panel Host

I am really looking forward to having fun at my third USA Science and Engineering Festival. With its carnival-like atmosphere the Festival is the perfect place to bring your kids for an up close look at the wonders of science and technology. They’ll be able to engage with hundreds of scientists and engineers who are working on solutions to challenges that matter to the economy and to our daily lives.

The Festival fare features demonstrations by science professionals, television personalities, authors, musicians, athletes, entertainers, plus giveaways and photo ops galore. It’s a showcase for cutting edge research and innovation being conducted by government agencies, engineering companies, professional associations, academia.

Commission after commission, survey after survey have proclaimed the sorry state of Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education in America. It’s a national embarrassment that our students’ lag behind their counterparts in other countries when it comes to STEM testing. More needs to be done to encourage and attract women and minorities to technical fields. The pipeline of teachers with the necessary skills to teach STEM subjects is inadequate to meet demand. Too many students feel they are either unprepared to study science courses, the subjects are too hard to pursue, or just too boring.

Popular culture isn’t helpful with constant references to professionals working in these fields as “geeks” and “nerds.” If the U.S. is to remain competitive in the future and remain at the forefront of innovation and economic growth, it is imperative that today’s student’s become more comfortable and competent with STEM disciplines.

The annual USA Science and Engineering Festival is doing its part to bring the importance of STEM education to national attention. The event offers unique and dynamic opportunities to introduce students to the fun and joyful side of science.

During my tenure as head of public outreach activities for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA), participating in the first two USA Science and Engineering Festivals ranked among my favorite collaborations.

The decision to invest scarce communication resources as an exhibitor was always a no-brainer. The goals of NASA’s public outreach agenda align perfectly with the Festival’s mission “to re-invigorate the interest of our nation's youth in STEM-related careers by producing and presenting the most compelling, exciting, educational and entertaining science festival in the United States.”

The gathering is also one more way to reassure the public that despite the end of launches of the Space Shuttle two years ago the space agency is alive, well, and doing great things. There are precious few venues where it’s possible to share the excitement of NASA’s mission with hundreds of thousands of taxpayers at one time and in one place.

If you plan on “re-invigorating the interest of our nation’s youth,” it better be fun and relevant. NASA civil servants and contractors will again volunteer over the weekend to staff four-dozen “compelling, exciting, educational and entertaining” exhibits that represent the agency’s broad portfolio. Visitors will be treated to numerous opportunities for hands-on participation related to the agency’s current missions -- conducted on an investment of less than a half-cent of the Federal budget.

Students will be able to design and create paper airplanes and test them in a mini-wind tunnel. Stick your hands into a glove box like the one on board the International Space Station (ISS) and feel what it’s like to perform experiments while wearing bulky space mittens. Speaking of the Station, you can help crank out parts on a 3-D printer just like the one now being tested by the astronauts in orbit on the ISS.

Mega monitors will be the backstop for Earth scientists to display startling satellite imagery of the terrain and oceans of our home planet. Planetary scientists will offer an up-close and personal look at the latest adventures of the Curiosity Rover on Mars. Meanwhile, if you like the mind boggling images from the Hubble Space Telescope, wait until you hear astronomers describe how the James Webb Telescope will allow them to see to the beginning of time!

Despite all the negative STEM news, you can’t help but feel hopeful and optimistic when you see the look of awe and wonder in the eyes of future explorers as they grab the controls of simulators and take spacecraft and high performance jets through their paces. You’ll laugh along with kids lying on their backs serving as obstacles for a planetary rover to rumble over their bellies. Family members will be all smiles as they take SELFIES standing next to robots and astronaut.

NASA won’t be the only space game on the Festival midway. Corporations and universities working to maintain the nation’s leadership in space will be on hand with their own rockets, robots, and spaceships. Lockheed Martin will let you fly simulators for aircraft and spacecraft or film your own forecast on the Weather Channel’s weather wall. SpaceX will show off its Merlin engine, just like the ones that launched their Falcon 9 rocket to the space station earlier this week. Astronomers from the American Astronomical Society will reveal the mysteries of Dark Matter. ATK will help you build and launch your own rocket to Fly to the Moon. And stop by Space Camp booth for a sample of astronaut ice cream and learn what else they eat in space.

This year I’ll be back at the Festival as emcee for the Sunday morning stage shows. Instead of introducing space explorers, I’ll host panelists and individuals on the topics of the Science of Extreme Sports, Children’s Science Literature, and It’s Ok to be Smart and Cool About Science. I’m especially looking forward to the final presentation for the session: Surviving an Apocalypse or Zombie Invasion. Who doesn’t want to know about that!

In addition to the space activities already noted, there will be over 3,000 hands-on activities for “students” of all ages to enjoy. World-class experts will be on hand to demonstrate and discuss a kaleidoscope of STEM disciplines including energy and the environment, heath and medicine, information systems, oceanography, geography, to name a few.

If you want to introduce your children to the wonders of STEM and career opportunities of the future, the USA Science and Engineering Festival is the place to be. I guarantee – you will have lots of fun!

For complete details on the USA Science and Engineering Festival:



Alan Ladwig is the former head of Public Outreach at NASA and currently Chief of To Orbit Productions.

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