By JC Delgadillo
San Francisco District
WASHINGTON — More than 100,000 curious participants descended upon the 2012 USA Science and Engineering Expo and Book Fair April 27-29 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. The event featured highly interactive displays targeting youth K-12 and brought together top-notch universities, government agencies, private-sector companies, and non-profit organizations all for one purpose: to influence children to become the next generation of innovators by making science and engineering fun.
For decades, the United States has been the world's scientific and technological leader, yet between 1990 and 2005, worldwide higher education enrollment and degrees doubled while the U.S. share particularly in science and engineering, fell. Should Americans be concerned about the decline in the U.S. share of higher education degrees in science and engineering? Gopa Nair, a father of two little girls from Centreville, Va. said, "Yes." He brought his daughters Riya and Sreya Nair, ages eight and five to the expo.
"I tell my daughters that I love them very much and they can be anything they want to be when they grow up, but they must have a solid understanding of math and science."
In 2005, the National Academies published a report demanding more investment in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics education in America. "Rising Above the Gathering Storm," warned that for the United States to remain competitive in a global economy, the nation's leaders, both public and private, must make Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math education a priority. According to conference organizers, given the dangerous down trends in American STEM education, the expo serves several important purposes including inspiring more students to pursue science and engineering related careers and educating the nation on the opportunities for employment in the science and technology sector.
More than 3,000 exhibitors sought to ignite childrens' interest in such topics as preventing global warming, advancing medicine and health, unraveling how the brain works, and developing innovations that keep people safe.
Among the thousands of exhibitors was research engineer Kelley MacDonald from the Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in Hanover, N.H. The laboratory is part of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' Engineer Research and Development Center. MacDonald, 25, is one of the laboratory's youngest engineers and said a great math teacher in junior high as well as her dad, sparked her interest in science.
MacDonald showcased the Synthetic Automotive Virtual Environment or SAVE at the expo. SAVE's goal is to save lives, she explained. About one third as many Soldiers are killed in vehicle accidents as in combat, so SAVE was developed to teach military drivers how to control their vehicles, avoid accidents, and drive on rough terrain, including road conditions in warzones. Engineers like MacDonald, computer programmers, expert drivers and more worked together to develop the simulator and accompanying virtual world that allows drivers to practice and prepare for real world road conditions. While children were not allowed to take the simulator for a spin, adults were. So with a waiver signed, seatbelt buckled, and instructions issued, MacDonald began the simulation for Gopal Nair. Riya and Sreya Nair cheered for their daddy as he maneuvered over ice, gravel, sand, rock and even negotiated around a roadside bomb. After completing the simulation, Nair, a computer scientist, said he was impressed by SAVE.
As the conference came to a close, nearly 200 participants took SAVE for a spin, hundreds more learned about its mission to save troops' lives and countless children may have been inspired to become the next generation of innovators and problem solvers.