National science fair aims to breathe new life into science and math for kids


Rajon Simms (left) 9, Cherice Pettus, 8, and Julius Wright (right), 8, students from Valley View Elementary School in Oxon Hill, Md., look at the crew module of the Orion spacecraft on April 27 at the Washington Convention Center. (Tracy A. Woodward/THE WASHINGTON POST)
April 27, 2012

It’s a science fair on steroids.

Eyes widened behind glasses, hair whipped around in hurricane simulators and nimble fingers mimicked arthroscopic knee surgery techniques Friday at the second USA Science & Engineering Festival.

More than 13,000 kids got their geek on with Bill Nye “the Science Guy,” storm chasers and astronauts at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for the first day of a three-day event designed to revive interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

Seventh-graders Lucresse Djuidje, 13, and Jasmine Harris, 12, both from Silver Spring, were on a class field trip from White Oak Middle School. Lucresse is interested in space exploration, and Jasmine likes chemistry.

“It’s a good experience to come here,” Lucresse said at a quick lunch break. She wants to learn more about planets and see what lies ahead in space.

“Investment in science and technology is the key to our future,” Nye said. “It’s the best investment our society can make.”

This weekend’s event, organizers say, is the only national science festival with the aim of promoting science and math careers to children.

In 2009, a global survey found that 15-year-olds in the United States were average in reading and science and slightly below average in math. The results were significantly behind those from several countries in Europe and Asia, according to the report from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

Nye said that after the moon missions and the end of the Cold War, U.S. science and technology funding dropped off. But recently, there has been renewed interest in STEM education.

President Obama has hosted two science fairs in the White House since 2010 and launched an “Educate to Innovate” campaign to encourage students to study math and science. Obama’s 2013 budget also includes a $150 million request for the National Science Foundation to advance undergraduate STEM education procedures.

‘Your place in space’

On Friday, row upon row of exhibits dominated the convention center, featuring everything from food science to space exploration — complete with an Orion spacecraft, the Magic School Bus and, of course, the Science Guy.

Science helps people learn about themselves, Nye told the students.

“It’s the way you can know how you fit in,” he said. “Your place in space.”

More than 3,000 hands-on activities and about 150 performances and demonstrations will be offered throughout the weekend, including several geared toward getting younger girls interested in science and math.

“I think there’s a struggle to get into the field” for women, said fourth-grade teacher Kristin Luley of Fort Belvoir Elementary School. Luley helps run an after-school club called Girls Excelling in Math and Science, where third- and fourth-grade girls do hands-on experiments and talk about jobs they can get as scientists and engineers.

“They need to know,” she said.

To help get the word out, Darlene Cavalier founded the Science Cheerleader organization, where former and current NFL and NBA cheerleaders who hold science degrees try to break stereotypes and foster STEM interest in girls. The Science Cheerleaders performed at the festival Friday, using their cheers and stomping to measure how much they could shake the floor.

They stomped with almost the same acceleration as the force of gravity, according to readings by the U.S. Geological Survey.

Beyond book learning

Mark Shindyapin, 13, of Harrisonburg said he likes to see science acted out and loves conducting experiments. “In most other subjects, you learn stuff from the book,” he said.

The seventh-grader at Thomas Harrison Middle School wants to be a marine biologist so he can study the environment and animals up close.

Paul Robinson studies tornadoes for similar reasons. A tornado analyst, or storm chaser, for the Center for Severe Weather Research, Robinson has twice been face to face with twisters.

The storms were weak, he said, but his job is “exhilarating.”

“All of a sudden, there it was,” Robinson said, standing near a Doppler radar at the festival. “As it’s hitting you, you don’t know what might happen.”

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