Celebrating Science and Engineering on the National Mall

After joining President Obama in welcoming students to the White House Science Fair last Monday, OSTP Director John P. Holdren spent Saturday morning with fellow OSTP staffers and an estimated half-a-million other visitors on the National Mall, reveling in the USA Science and Engineering Festival. Under beautiful blue skies, science, mathematics, and engineering literally had their day in the sun, with more than 1,000 displays and demonstrations that educated, entertained, and inspired children and adults alike.

Within minutes of our arrival at the Festival we came upon a familiar figure: Thomas Alva Edison, or at least a close facsimile, in the person of Frank Attwood, an Orlando-based self-described “actorpreneur.” Toting a tattered brown briefcase and with an ancient phonograph in tow, Attwood was buttonholing visitors and regaling them with tales of the all-American inventor, who so personified the kind of innovation that today continues to undergird our Nation’s social and economic strength.

The displays and hands-on activities that covered the Mall—and filled other parts of downtown DC—were themselves great examples of pedagogical ingenuity.

  • The National Aquarium challenged visitors to guess and discover whether various species of plants and animals now common in our environment are native or introduced. (Corn: native. Potatoes: introduced. Zebra mussels? Don’t get us started!)
  • The Juneau Economic Development Council trucked in a 1,500-pound chunk of glacial ice that recently broke off Alaska’s Mendenhall Glacier so visitors could watch it melt in the Washington sun, a graphic backdrop for those wishing to learn about global climate change.
  • Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory showed a brain-bending 3-D movie about how its National Ignition Facility hopes to harness the power of fusion energy, while the Oak Ridge National Laboratory—not to be outdone—had visitors play the role of living proton beams and sent them down a simulated particle accelerator to be smashed to smithereens at nearly the speed of light.
  • The J. Craig Venter Institute’s bio-diesel-fueled educational bus showed off its approach to using sewage-eating bacteria to generate electricity, a process the Institute hopes to scale up to 1,000-gallon reactors in the next year or so.
  • Space Exploration Technologies, better known as SpaceX, was there, showing off its Dragon capsule and elegantly engineered Merlin rocket engines—part of the fast-maturing commercial launch industry that promises to send cargo—and eventually crews—to the International Space Station.
  • And at other booths large and small, children and their enthusiastic parents got help building rockets, extracting DNA, controlling soccer-ball-scoring robots, creating sundial watches, designing ultraviolet light detectors, and even learning about bizarre physics (“Make your own non-Newtonian fluid!” one booth boasted—proof that this was not your everyday street festival).

The Festival also provided fertile ground for that most American outlet of ingenuity: T-shirt designs. Among those we spotted: “Got Microbes?” (American Society for Microbiology); “Molecular Biology: All the Cool Kids are Doing It!” (Princeton University); and “Who Needs Statisticians?” (with, of course, a long list of people and professions that do, including “oceanographers, lawyers, and kings” to name just a few from that T-shirt’s fine print).

Of course, there is nothing like old-fashioned human star-power to get the next generation of scientists and engineers excited, which explains why some of the longest lines on the Mall were populated by youngsters seeking autographs from astronaut John Grunsfeld, “the Hubble-repairman”, and television’s “Bill Nye the Science Guy.”

Speaking of star power, President Obama himself gave the Festival a shout out, both at the White House Science Fair last week and in a video embedded in the Festival’s web site. “I hope you have fun exploring this festival,” the President said in his taped remarks.

Well, we sure did. All in all, it was a weekend that would have made Thomas Edison proud.

Check out photos from the festival, captured by OSTP's Phil Larson, below:

White House
White House
White House
White House
White House