Saturday, October 9, 2010

Even more artsy science and science appreciation

This year another festival has emerged to rival Briane Green's World Science Fair in its right-brained take on science... the USA Science and Engineering Festival. As described by the festival's website:

The Inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival, hosted by Lockheed Martin, is the country’s first national science festival and descends on the Washington, D.C. area in October 2010. Opening on 10/10/10 with a concert of amazing science songs performed by over 200 children and adults at the University of Maryland, the Festival promises to be the ultimate multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-disciplinary celebration of science in the United States. The culmination of the Festival will be a free, two-day Expo on the National Mall and surrounding areas on October 23 and 24 that will feature over 1500 fun, hands-on science activities and over 75 stage shows and performances on four stages. In addition, several exhibitors will be hosting talks and performances in their exhibit areas. The Festival is a grassroots collaboration of over 500 of the nation’s leading science organizations. The Festival has a bipartisan Honorary Congressional Host Committee with over 100 Members supporting its efforts.
The top ten exhibits listed on the website involve images of the sun and the night sky; a virtual journey across mars; a virtual helecopter ride through the DC skies; a simulation of a fighter plane ride; iphone apps for facial recognition, biometrics, and geopositioning; chatting with an interactive robot; solving a mystery using the latest Microsoft and Apple technology; meeting astronauts; meeting two actors from the hit TV show NCIS as they "pose for photos, sign autographs, and MC the Lockheed Martin Engineering Primetime demonstration"; and various interactive virtual reality demonstrations. 

Spanning two weeks and activities across the country, culminating in two-day expo on the Washington Mall, the festival is the brainchild of entrepreneur Larry Bock. As quoted in Edweek, Bok notes that:
The premise that I'm operating by is society gets what it celebrates. We celebrate Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears and we get a lot of young people who want to be like them.
and that the Festival is:
Not a competition, it's more a celebration of science and engineering. There will be lots of hands-on activities, but also theater, art, and music, all celebrating science and engineering.
Yes indeed, Mr. Bok, society gets what it celebrates. And so the effectiveness of festivals such as these depends on what our goals are. Do we want to cultivate a generation of technology appreciators and consumers, and of people who view science as performance? Or do we want to show people what science really is--its logical and experimental rigor; its narrow focus; the strong knowledge base and hard work it requires--and give those who relish these things the educational foundation they need to become scientists, computer programmers and engineers?

If we keep avoiding the harder, less showy route, the objects of our technology appreciation and consumption will be engineered increasingly by those who are educated in other countries, while our own students will be increasingly ill-prepared, both scholastically and psychologically, for what science really is.


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I posted a followup to your post at

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Reminds me of the hands-on "discovery" science museums where kids race from station to station, madly pushing buttons and scarcely waiting for the interactive exhibit to do its thing before running off to the next one. They're not discovering anything; it's all about noisy, flashy exhibits that amuse and entertain rather than educate.

"Science songs"? You've got to be kidding...

Anonymous said...

Niels comment is right on-I was at the Exploritorium in San Fran and the children did not stop to ponder the significance of what the interactive display was about-but just mindlessly went about each display as fast as possible.
Your comment about the rigor and hard work of science is so true. Even scientists do not model this hard work when around students. They do the wow! factor too much. I teach Physics and my students ask to watch Bill Nye. I refuse to because as I tell them, he portrays scientists as goofs, and geeks and that science isn't always fun and games. I tell them the story of the medical research who spent 17 years working on a cancer treatment and found out after all the results came back, that it didn't work. What seemed possible initially didn't work when it came to human trials.
Then, to my amazement, we watch a twenty minute video of Richard Feynman and they asked to see more when it was over! And he didn't mince words!
DO not be afraid the challenge the kids with hard work!

FMA said...

This may get kids excited about science but it is only an extensive knowledge that will drive them into science majors and jobs down the road. There is only so much you can learn through fun and games. Sure, do the fun stuff but how about also giving kids real scientific knowledge from Kindergarten on.

Anonymous said...

Children do need exposure to science in order to develop the intention (and the persistence) to pursue it. But over-emphasis on the entertainment approach is a mistake. It's been called "science appreciation," and that's an apt term. What children really need is judicious exposure to the different science disciplines, plus a really solid math grounding, since there is no scientific discipline any more that doesn't depend on advanced math skills.

ChemProf said...

Plus too much focus on science appreciation can leave even science majors with a strange idea of what scientists do. I have had so many students who, as sophomores or juniors, describe what they want to do, and it is to be a docent. Which is a wonderful thing, but as a volunteer, not a job.