I recently joined thousands of kids at the X-STEM Extreme Science Symposium, a daylong program of science talks for kids, in Washington, D.C. It is part of the larger USA Science & Engineering Festival, an annual event for getting kids interested in careers in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math).
"I want to celebrate science in the same way we would celebrate other fields, like music, art, film, theater, and comedy,” event founder Lawrence Bock told me. “This is a festival, just as you would have a Renaissance festival or music festival or a food festival. Those things are fun and interactive, and they don't make things boring. I wanted to do the same thing for science."
The X-STEM symposium wasn’t boring in the least. Held April 24, 2014, at the Washington Convention Center, the event offered festivalgoers a choice of more than two-dozen talks by prominent scientists. Subjects ranged from 3D printing to oceanography to astrophysics. The presentations were interactive, which helped get people excited about science and math, and the auditoriums were packed with parents and their kids, from five-year-olds to teens.
Presenter Theodore Gray is the author of several books, including The Elements and Molecules, and the co-founder of the scientific search engine WolframAlpha. The audience laughed as Gray talked about how fun and cool science and mathematics can be. At one point, he asked the audience to imagine making a blowtorch that can cut through steel—using bacon and a flaming stick! He also spoke about the importance of balancing work and fun. "You are always going to work harder and do better work [when you are] doing something that you are interested in,” he said.
Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, talked about his career in human genetics, which includes the study of DNA—the building blocks of life. Dr. Collins also described how important it is to "make a difference." To demonstrate how much he enjoys his work, he serenaded the audience with the 1961 pop song “My Little Runaway” while strumming a guitar emblazoned with a DNA double helix in mother-of-pearl on the fret board. He had the whole crowd clapping along.
At another presentation, inventor Saul Griffith, head of Otherlabs, which designs new technologies like movable solar panels and wind turbine kites, told attendees that the idea for one of his inventions came from an inflatable animal that he had given to his niece. But it turned out that she wanted an animal that could move, so Griffith got right to work. Among his inventions: a giant, child-carrying elephant that took eight hours to walk a mile. Another was an "ant-roach" (an anteater cockroach; yuck!). It moved faster than the elephant. Nowadays, Griffith uses his inflatable technologies to help the elderly and ill improve their mobility, and to assist rescue workers with moving heavy objects in emergency situations.
Advice for Young Scientists
At the STEM Symposium, I asked Saul Griffith for advice on becoming a scientist. He gave a thoughtful response, explaining what she sees as the perfect combination for success in the field. "You have to be playful and you have to be rigorous,” Griffith told me. “I think making and being a maker is playful,” he added. “But it's not rigorous. So, if you do that, you can grow up and do special effects for Hollywood. But if you want to make new things, you also need to be rigorous. You need to learn and understand math, physics, and science. And if you can combine playful with rigorous, you are like this super-powered superhero. To me, the only adventure left is being playful and rigorous and inventing new things to do. If you want to be the new Indiana Jones, you need to be a rigorous engineer."
TFK’s Raphael Chambers has the science beat covered! Go here to read his coverage of the White House Science Fair.