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Festival on the Mall challenges young and old to think scientifically

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.

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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.

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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.

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