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My experience at the 2014 USA Science and Engineering Festival

Updated: Jan 5, 2023

April 28, 2014

If I were to describe in one word the 2014 USA Science and Engineering Festival that took place in Washington, DC this past weekend, it would be: overwhelming. I have never seen anything like it.

This place was HUGE!

The festival took up two floors of the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, one of which was about two football fields from end to end, the other of which was nearly four. Both massive spaces were entirely full of booths, exhibits, simulators and cool science activities, and stages. I felt like it had more science activities than all of the world’s science museums put together.

Pretty much every organization you could possibly think of remotely related to STEM was there. Universities, government agencies, corporations, non-profits, military branches; organizations related to agriculture, sustainability, technology, national security, trade jobs, and of course virtually every single branch of science and engineering were represented.

And then there were so many big names giving talks and shows that it’s hard to keep track:

  • Apollo Robbins (that magician/illusionist on National Geographic’s “Brain Games”)

  • David Pogue (“NOVA ScienceNow”)

  • Michio Kaku (oh, all sorts of things; if you’ve watched anything on the Science Channel you’ve most likely seen him)

  • Mike Rowe (“Dirty Jobs”; I still think that’s a bit of a stretch to relate to STEM, but sure, let’s promote skilled trades too)

  • the science consultants for “Breaking Bad,” “House,” and “Big Bang Theory”

  • Danica McKellar (math advocate, “Wonder Years,” and currently “Dancing with the Stars”)

  • They Might Be Giants (why yes, let’s throw in a couple rock concerts as well)

  • and Bill Nye (the Science Guy!)

Dr. Michio Kaku on the Einstein Stage

Bill Nye on the Einstein Stage

Bill Nye and Mike Rowe on the Einstein Stage

There were tons of other science-related people and groups featured on the stages as well, each of which would probably be a big deal by themselves, but were pretty much dwarfed by the sheer magnitude of everything going on. Hey, don’t feel bad, I even left part-way through one of Bill Nye’s shows, there was just so much happening!

I had been hoping this would be a great networking opportunity.

With so many fabulous on-television science communicators, I came prepared with new business cards and a list of questions to ask anyone I might run into so I could write about them on this blog, and possibly get them to agree to be a future guest speaker for the Science Media Roundtable I’m organizing for Women in Film and Video. However, I didn’t anticipate just how huge and overwhelming this festival would be! It was really hard to focus on anything, and short of sneaking into the curtained-off back-stage areas, I wasn’t sure how to reach any of the people I really wanted to talk with.

The one celebrity that I did manage to briefly chat with didn’t actually have anything to do with STEM – Valentin Chmerkovskiy, Danica McKellar’s dance partner on “Dancing with the Stars”. I’m definitely not complaining about that one though; I love Val! I happened to know a couple of the locally hired DwtS production assistants from working with them on previous PA gigs (actually I think one was more than a PA this time, but I don’t know exactly what her role was, so for lack of a better term let’s stick with “PA”), and ran into them standing off to the side with Val watching Danica’s talk about math. I told Val that of course I’m rooting for him and Danica.

Valentin Chmerkovskiy!

With any (an impossibly large amount of) luck, I’ll become famous enough over the next few years that I myself will go on “Dancing with the Stars” (because that looks so freaking fun!!) and Val will remember me. “Oh hey,” he’ll say with his Ukrainian accent, “didn’t I meet you at that Science and Engineering Festival a few years back?” Did I? I don’t quite remember. Let’s just focus on once again showcasing a STEM advocate who can tango, Val.

Danica McKellar on the Lockheed Martin stage

I did write a note on the back of my business card and asked one of the PAs to pass it on to Danica. I’m guessing she didn’t actually have any intention of following through with that request, but, Danica, on the off chance that you made it to my website and are reading this – a) I’m sorry to hear about your broken rib, ouch! And b) I’d love to get your advice on pursuing a career combining entertainment and STEM, so please let me know if you have a spare couple of minutes to chat!

On the second day of the festival, I subbed in for a few hours for one of the volunteers at the NASA heliophysics table.

So, I tried to dig up in my brain as much as I could from that one heliophysics class I took, in an attempt not to look too stupid while sitting next to an actual heliophysicist. To be honest, not a lot stuck with me from that class – I always found heliophysics to be a particularly confusing space subject. Everyone’s heard of solar flares, and many have heard of coronal mass ejections, but there are also prominences/filaments, solar energetic particles, solar jets, just general “solar storms”, and a lot of these seem similar to me without super well-defined distinctions.

One of the first questions a kid asked me was, “Why are sun spots cooler in temperature?” Ummm… I’m used to explaining that sun spots look dark because they are a cooler temperature than the surrounding surface of the Sun, but why exactly ARE they cooler? “The magnetic field lines are causing convection in the material and it’s moving around and getting hotter and colder…” I rambled in a manner comprehensible to neither me nor the young boy. I later asked my heliophysicist co-volunteer, and he gave me a not-so-straightforward answer about how magnetic field lines apply pressure to the surrounding material, but more so to the hotter particles so they move away, or something.

At the NASA heliophysics table, dropping knowledge on passersby

I soon discovered that the kids stopping by our booth at the festival were way more knowledgeable than kids I’ve previously done outreach with. I had been about to explain to a 3 or 4-year-old boy about how our Sun is actually a star, but then, I kid you not, he told me the temperature at which hydrogen undergoes nuclear fusion. His dad was having him sing a song about it. One 11 or 12-year-old boy was a young Sheldon Cooper. He came to our table to lecture us about all things heliophysics. “Where did you learn all this?” we asked him. His mom told us, slightly exasperatedly, that he was interested in all sorts of stuff, like quantum physics, etc. After a couple minutes, she pulled him away from our table, I think because perhaps she though he was annoying us a bit. Wow!

I learned that my heliophysicist co-volunteer was from northern Minnesota – not a place particularly common for heliophysicists, I’m sure! I think he unknowingly spoke a bit over people’s heads sometimes – I could see some people nodding and trying to act like they understood him so they wouldn’t seem stupid – but he had lots of great examples and imagery and was chock full of space and science knowledge. Plus, he was unbelievably passionate. He kept telling people about how much he absolutely loves going to work every day. Honestly, that’s not an impression I get a lot of the time from people at NASA.

One girl asked about how you measure the speed of light. My co-volunteer was telling her about some of the fancy ways scientists measure it. Then I jumped in and told her how one of the first ways the speed of light was accurately estimated was using the transit times of Jupiter’s moons. In the late 1600s, an astronomer (Ole Roemer) noticed that the times at which Jupiter’s four main moons passed in front of Jupiter periodically happened earlier or later than predicted (by Giovanni Cassini). This was because of the difference in distance between the Earth and Jupiter as we orbit the Sun, and so it was taking longer and shorter amounts of time for the light from Jupiter to reach us. He was able to use these differences to calculate the speed of light. “Ah yes,” said my co-volunteer, “I thought there was a simpler explanation.” Yay, I was redeemed!

Another girl and her mom were asking us for advice about how kids can figure out what they want to do. My co-volunteer talked with them for a while about how you need to try things and not be afraid to fail, and really stick with it and work hard and give it a good chance before you decide if you like it, and ask a lot of questions in class, etc. – he was giving a lot of good messages, but the girl’s eyes were kind of glazing over. Then I talked with her about how you don’t need to do just one thing, and you can always combine your interests. Say you really like space science, but you don’t want to give up music, well you can write songs about space! [Edit: My dad would like me to mention that writing space limericks is another example.] I told her about my whole idea for combining my desires to be an actor and an astronaut. I don’t know if she really liked what I was saying or if she just preferred getting advice from another girl, but either way, her eyes lit up. I win this round! Yes, I treat public outreach as a bit of a competition.

Back to the rest of the festival.

One of the talks I paid the most attention to was “Getting the Science Right in Hollywood” with the science consultants for “House,” “Big Bang Theory,” and “Breaking Bad,” because of course fictional science-related television shows are my greatest interest. So in summary, these scientists don’t do any of the writing for the shows, but they take a look at the episode scripts and make suggestions for places where it could be more scientifically accurate. They said they try to make their suggestions match the cadence of the dialog and fit into the story, but ultimately it’s up to the writers/producers as to what changes are made. John Sotos, one of a few consultants for “House,” said that he would have to come up with a list of diseases with similar symptoms, where the diagnosis could be narrowed down as more symptoms were added. Once, he was asked to come up with a completely incurable disease as the final diagnosis, so he did, and the writers made the script. Then, last minute, they decided they wanted the girl to live. Ack, what could he do?! One of the people working on the show came up with a solution and they switched the order of the last two diagnoses. Sure, technically the symptoms more closely matched the other diagnosis, but only one nit-picker blogger seemed to notice.

David Saltzberg, John Sotos, and Donna Nelson, science consultants for Big Bang Theory, House, and Breaking Bad

All in all, I didn’t personally get as much accomplished at the festival as I would have liked, due to the ridiculously massive nature of the event. But, having too much awesome in one place certainly isn’t the worst complaint in the world! I hope I’ll get another chance at it next year. If you have any advice on how to have some focus and not be completely overwhelmed when going to a huge event like this, please let me know in a comment below!

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