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Engineers can prevent the intellectual downfall of the nation

Fri, 04/11/2014 - 8:47am
David Mantey, Editor-in-Chief

According to several outlets, a dearth of science and engineering students, coupled with the underqualified workforce unable to fill current need, is leading to the intellectual downfall of the nation.

If you strike up a conversation with “that guy” in the office, he may even tell you a yarn about the once great superpower falling to an intellectual third world country wholly reliant on Chinese goods, services, and currency. You may not admit it out loud, but you just pictured someone in your head, please comment below keep it to yourself (those trolls are always watching, waiting for such a soapbox to present itself).

Well, for those sky-is-falling reactionaries shouting fire, hope remains on the horizon.

In 2012, the USA Science & Engineering Festival drew 250,000 curious minds to Washington, D.C. in a celebration of science and engineering. This year, the biannual event has plans to host more than 300,000 people at DC’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center as part of its ongoing mission of reinvigorating youth interest in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) by presenting compelling educational, and entertaining programs.

See: 2014 USA Science & Engineering Festival

The best part, other than hosting enough speakers to fill TED stages for the next two years, is that this event is free – to everyone. The festival doesn’t even require preregistration unless you plan to attend the preview event on April 25th. The benefit of the preview night is that organizers don’t make you choose between exhibits and speakers, only the exhibits and demonstrations are open.

Let’s take a look at “the world’s largest STEM outreach project” by the numbers:

· 35,000 preregistered students (Friday already looks like a winner)
· 3,000 activities
· 1,000 organizations with hands-on demonstrations
· 200+ universities
· 150 corporate sponsors (including founding and presenting sponsor Lockheed Martin)
· 100+ high-tech companies
· 75+ government agencies and federal laboratories
· 20 co-located professional events

Initially referred to as the “Woodstock of Science,” the event has transitioned to the “Super Bowl of Science” – most likely because the key demographic has a limited understanding of Woodstock, and any nostalgic family member is at least a generation removed. But who knows, with the NFL marketing department’s aggressive nature, I’ll likely receive a cease and desist at the mere unsanctioned mention of our county’s most overblown night of entertainment.

“The whole premise of the event, is that we [as a society] get what we celebrate,” says festival founder Larry Bock. “We celebrate actors, pop stars, and athletes, and we generate a lot of them, but we do not celebrate science and engineering. We wanted to put on the world's largest celebration of science and engineering.”

Bock, who works fulltime on the show without drawing a salary, is a serial entrepreneur who has founded, co-founded, or financed the early stage growth of 40 companies in the life and physical sciences.

In 2010, the first festival was held at the National Mall in D.C. The weather held, but Bock chose not to risk it in 2012 and moved the event to the Washington convention center. This year, Bock has made a number of notable additions, including a meet and greet with scientists and engineers consisting of an hour-long Q&A with organizations, a career pavilion, a commercial drone pavilion, an advanced manufacturing pavilion (tapping into the 3D printing craze), a personalized medicine pavilion, and an influx of DIY and maker organizations.

The show will also host the 2014 International Women’s Hackathon, a crowdsourcing event put on by Microsoft Research charged with promoting female interest in computer science. If you have a chance, and a daughter interested in science and math, read the kit.

“The rate at which girls are going into science is accelerating,” says Bock. “I think we might actually have more girls than boys at this year’s event.”

According to Bock, much of the increased female interest in STEM can be attributed to the National Center for Women & Information Technology (NCWIT). “The NCWIT is very aggressive in getting young girls excited about science and engineering,” says Bock.

The preview event, sponsored by the Department of Defense, is themed “diversity in STEM.”

On Saturday and Sunday, the festival produces a number of interesting stage shows. According to Bock, most of the performers donate their time as a philanthropic effort. After all, where else are they going to find an audience that size? The event has more than 135 performances/stage shows, but here a few notable people appearing at the show:

· Michio Kaku — futurist, geek legend
· Bill Nye — science guy, go-to talking head
· Mike Rowe — continuing his efforts to pique youth interest in the trades
· Paul Depodesta — Key figure in the ‘Moneyball’ concept, former GM of the Los Angeles Dodgers
· David Pogue — tech evangelist
· Donna Nelson — Organic Chemistry professor at the University of Oklahoma, also Breaking Bad science advisor
· Mike Aponte — killer blackjack player, former MIT student, inspiration for Bringing Down the House
· Nate Ball — engineer, inventor, pole vaulter, pianist, beatboxer (read twice, yes it is correct)
· Chris Hacket — DIYer hosting “Surviving an Apocalypse or Zombie Invasion”
· David Gallo — explores the Titanic

With all of that, you’re out of excuses, so treat yourself to some good STEM. I’ll be in D.C. for the event and hope to see you at the convention center. Chances are good that you can catch me at Kaku’s presentation, but odds are I’ll be in the Zombie-prep crowd — here’s hoping they don’t run concurrently.

What’s your take? Comment below or email me at David.Mantey@advantagemedia.com.

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