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USA Science and Engineering Festival - April 16-17, 2016, Washington, D.C. by Judy Newton
Review by Judy Newton
USA Science & Engineering Festival  
Date: 24 April 2016

Links: STEM Festival / Show Official Info /

Everywhere You Look - Science! And a Little Bit of Science Fiction.

The USA Science and Engineering Festival bills itself as "the largest and only NATIONAL science festival". With an expected attendance of over 350,000 over the four days of the Expo, and 1,000 exhibitors, they are probably correct. It certainly filled up all the exhibit space in the Washington Convention Center.

Their mission, as detailed on their website, is "to re-invigorate the interest of our nation's youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by producing and presenting the most compelling, exciting, educational and entertaining science festival in the United States". Organizations from schools to government agencies to professional societies to private companies were all there to show kids how science can relate to their lives.

The biggest chunk of real estate in the exhibit hall was occupied by Lockheed Martin--no surprise, since they were the major sponsor. A huge banner appeared as I glided down the escalator to Hall B: "This Science Isn't Fiction". I have mixed feelings about this. I think I've decided to accept it as a backhanded compliment.

Walking around LM's exhibit, I wondered if I hadn't managed to find another expo entirely--maybe the Sea-Air-Space event at National Harbor--there were so many warlike objects parked on the floor. A helicopter, fighter jet, and flight simulator seemed to be less about promoting STEM than bragging about the military contractor's products.

But then, there was a patch of simulated Martian landscape populated with Boy Scouts wearing virtual reality goggles, and other civilian-oriented exhibits as well. I decided to forgive LM, and went in search of other wonders.

A tube of eerily-lit fluid with two biomimicing organisms swimming silently up and down provided a stunning visual. The "aquajellies" are simulated jellyfish developed by Festo AG, a German company, to study autonomous behavior in a collective.

I continued down the exhibit hall, past costumed characters and a pair of science educators out walking their robot, to find that STEM education can be interpreted to include the culinary program at Pennsylvania College of Technology (Penn State). Here, you could play with molecular gastronomy, taste the finer nuances of chocolate, and see how much fun it is to eat a mini-marshmallow which has been dipped in liquid nitrogen--and exhale smoke!

Upstairs at the smaller exhibit hall, NASA claimed a big piece of turf. Talk about interactive! Their area featured a scavenger hunt with tee-shirts from Space Camp as rewards. Along the way, you could, among much else, run an experiment to explore the different sources of energy, meet a spacesuit, experience hanging in space next to a satellite through virtual reality (very cool), watch models of Mars rovers, see a show projected on a very large screen, and (my personal favorite), crank out your own souvenir pressed penny. James Barker from St. Mary's School thought it was very cool, as well. Taxpayers' dollars well spent!

Oh, and Sea World was there, with live animals. Maybe the African Black-footed penguins were not much of a stretch, but they were proudly displaying an armadillo, a turtle, a snake, and a screech owl, as well. They transport more easily than killer whales, I guess.

Jamestown, Virginia, was harboring a seventeenth-century soldier teaching the use of a portable sundial to some fascinated school kids. The sundial, as well as several other objects on display, had been 3D-printed. Yes! The latest technology is being applied to the oldest stuff! 3D printing allows the exact reproduction of fragile artifacts for study and handling. Archaeology has come a long way since I was in college.

And finally, the little bit of science fiction. A small section shared by BSFS, WSFA, and the Arlington Planetarium was tucked away near NASA. Not a lot of whiz-bang, but friendly folks willing to talk about our mutual passion.

I was visiting the Expo on the Friday preview day, set aside for the press and school groups, so no stage shows were scheduled. On Saturday and Sunday, there was a full program of presentations, from They Might Be Giants to Dr. William Phillips from NIST (Nobel Prize winner for research in cryotechnology), in addition to the sensory overload going on in the exhibit halls.

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