Festival on the Mall challenges young and old to think scientifically

By Leslie Tamura
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, October 25, 2010; 2:09 PM

When third-grader Grace Mak came to the Mall on Saturday for the USA Science and Engineering Festival, she had a hypothesis: If she made a paper airplane, it would fly.

She had background in this area of physics and aerodynamics because her dad had already taught her how to make paper airplanes.

But the experimental conditions of the Mall made things difficult for Mak, 8, a student at Lees Corner Elementary School in Fairfax County.

Several of Mak's paper planes nosedived onto the pavement. Her fourth trial with Airplane D was the only one to float across the tent sponsored by Northrop Grumman, a global security company.

"It was fun," she said. "I learned about making a hypothesis, the scientific method."

More than 1,500 free, interactive exhibits drew about 500,000 people to downtown Washington this weekend to learn about science, technology, engineering and math.

"It's really important to reinvigorate the interests of young people in science and engineering," said Larry Bock, the man behind the event. "There's been this dramatic decline in the number of Americans going into advanced science positions . . . and unless we can turn that around in one generation, the game will be over."

Inspired by a science festival organized by the University of Cambridge in England, Bock, an entrepreneur interested in science education, decided to organize a regional event in San Diego in April 2009.

After the San Diego festival, Bock partnered with Lockheed Martin to develop this first national science festival. Beginning Oct. 10, the expo launched 75 satellite events, contests and exhibits across the country, culminating in the two-day grand finale expo in Washington.

"Our belief is society gets what it celebrates," Bock said. "We celebrate Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears, and we generate a lot of Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears wannabes. . . . It's important that society get together to celebrate science and engineering in the same way it celebrates pop stars and sports figures and TV celebrities."

Although TV personalities from "NCIS: Los Angeles," "MythBusters" and "Meteorite Men" were on site, crowds of people - young and old - huddled around tables, learning how to break bonds using whole milk and food coloring, to and extract DNA from strawberries.

Najee Jones, 13, stopped by Columbia University's table to observe undergraduate students dissecting sheep brains and cow eyes.

Jones had come to the festival as part of her weekend science homework - she had to fill out a worksheet about some of the activities she did at the expo - but the student from Hardy Middle School in Northwest Washington said she was going to spend the day exploring the exhibits.

Farther down the Mall, at a tent hosted by the University of Maryland, graduate students presented their ongoing research on the use of real-time, high-resolution organ imaging to enhance organ transplantations.

"This technology is used in ophthalmology right now, but you can use this in kidney transplantations, too," said Jeremiah Wierwille, a PhD student in the Fischell Department of Bioengineering at the University of Maryland. "You can see if the donor kidney's damaged before you transplant it."

As parents listened to the students talk about how this research will soon be used in clinical trials at nearby hospitals, children got their hands scanned by the research group's original hand-held imaging tools. People could see the layers of their skin in real time without the mess of ultrasound imaging.

Professors, engineers and researchers were also on hand to discuss their interests and to demonstrate how science is important for the country's continued success.

At the National User Facility Organization's tent on Freedom Plaza, Tom Ferbel and his colleagues talked about why research about things like particle physics and computer science mattered to the nation's economic competitiveness.

"Without science, we're going to go down the tubes," said Ferbel, a physics professor at the University of Rochester and a visiting professor at the University of Maryland.

But research and science seemed alive and well in Wilson Plaza, where such academic institutions as Harvard, Dartmouth, Johns Hopkins, University of Georgia, Case Western University and University of California at San Diego set up their lab benches, engaging young and old with new research findings and hands-on experiments.

Boston University, Howard and University of North Carolina parked their mobile laboratories along Freedom Plaza for students interested in looking at blood cells or learning lab techniques. Alongside these schools were buses from national museums and research organizations, offering virtual games and exhibits about healthy eating, evolution and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

Ben Lojacono-Evans, 7, from Potomac waited in line for an hour to go on the five-minute "Journey to the Center of the Lung," hosted by the COPD Foundation. With his mother, Meredydd, and his 5-year-old sister, Sara, Lojacono-Evans flew through a smoker's scarred lung tissue.

"It was so cool," Lojacono-Evans said of the COPD shuttle simulator. Although he said this was the highlight of his day, Lojacono-Evans added that he loves all the sciences - including history - and he enjoyed learning about ice cream and invasive species.

Although President Obama was not at the festival, he said in a statement that events like these and inquisitive young minds could power the country forward.

"If you're a young person, keep exploring, keep asking questions, keep having fun," the president said. "The future of the country and the advancement of the next century are in your hands."

Micah Golphin, 12, is one of those young people. With his friends on the Robotic Club at Jefferson Middle School in Southwest Washington, Golphin designs and builds robots with the idea that one day these types of contraptions will help the disabled navigate everyday life.

"I like building things," said Golphin, who dreams of one day owning his own company.

As several young children huddled around the Jefferson Middle School table, building Lego structures and models under the supervision of Golphin and his friends, Golphin added, "We're using math, physics, engineering to help people get their lives back."

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