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Science, Science Wherever You Go: SciFest All Access

The second running of the virtual SciFest All Access was a spectacular success, featuring the laughs, hands-on programs, personalities and diversity of programs that said one thing: ‘This is your future. And it’s going to be both very important and fun.’

Imagine waking up one morning knowing you’re going to play all day, and having more choices of activities with more people than you can count. Then imagine that all of that playtime is feeding you in ways that will enrich your life and career down the line, open more possibilities, and creating friends worldwide.

That’s how it felt to step into the amazing virtual world of SciFest All Access, the Virtual STEM Expo held October 18-24. Designed for K-12 students, educators and families, the week of programmed events and virtual activities drew thousands of online participants from the United States and throughout the world.

Sponsors for SciFest All Access included AstraZeneca, Campbell’s, Intel, Cargill, The Discovery Channel, U.S. Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration, CACI, U.S. Space Force, ACS, Broadcom, and Stemfinity.

SciFest All Access also brought enough scientific, engineering and creative brainpower together to light up a city while the “fun quota” in presentation after presentation was through the roof.

Stepping up on the STEM Stage to deliver the presentations were a “Who’s Who” of leading young scientists and engineers today. Mythbusters Jr. co-host and biochemical engineer Tamara Robertson joined Justin Shaifer “Mr. Fascinate” to guide participants through the programming, which featured 11 exhibit zones, dozens of activities, and virtual booths from nearly 100 exhibitors.

Along for the ride were an impressive list of companies who made the event possible, all of which hire STEM students constantly: AstraZeneca, Campbells, Cargill, Intel, The Discovery Channel, U.S. Air Force, Federal Aviation Administration, U.S. Space Force, ACS, Broadcom Foundation, CACI, and StemFinity. STEM Today is a media partner of both the USASEF and the event.

“They’ve really made a beautiful, rich environment, so interactive,” Tamara said. “It’s a lot less talking heads, and more pushing for fun, interactive experiences where you virtually explore and go in and out of the environment with your digital backpack, we guide you to locations where you can add stuff to it. Kids have such a good time. It’s a sneaky approach to teaching — keep it fun and keep them laughing.”

In addition, SciFest All Access featured a number of special activities within the overall event, including Girls Invent Lab, sponsored by Intel; the AstraZeneca Educator Resource Lab; Student Project Lab, and the celebration of National Chemistry Week. And just like on campus, teachers had their getaway development “room”, the Educator Resource Center, which was filled with materials related to the presentations, exhibits and activities. For direct experience, students had their own hangouts, too — like Virtual STEM Activities and the STEM Scavenger Hunt, always a blast.

“SciFest All Access is amazing,” said NOAA scientist Dr. Tracy Fanara, who presented another wonderful workshop with Tamara Robertson. “It’s a great resource for students to get connected with people in the STEM and science fields. Everyone has a unique story, and it’s important to hear of STEM successes, because it’s not all rainbows and butterflies; in fact, there are a lot of obstacles, and it is hard at times. But it’s all worth it in the end. You get through things you might not ordinarily; it builds character and work ethic.”

It’s also fun. Dr. Fanara’s presentations always feel like a day at science camp, with equal parts instruction, storytelling, experimenting and activities. But what conferees came in part to hear were the experiences of the scientists themselves, not a hard thing for Dr. Fanara, who drew from a striking list — science communicator, storm chaser, builder of models to simulate coastal sea level change, and a woman dedicated to saving humanity through her environmental and ocean sciences work at NOAA.

She was not alone. The presentations ranged far and wide, giving virtual students and teachers enough content to fill a curriculum for years. And more than a handful of science labs. Equally important, the way the USA Science & Engineering Festival team programmed the week, parents and students alike received a full look at how diverse science, engineering and tech careers have become — with more to come. The average high school senior can look forward to five or six career changes in their lives, creating a lifetime of choices.

To that, the presenters focused on giving participants as much of a hands-on experience as possible online. They matched their talks with activities in many cases, which showed experiments and examples, cooked up things on the spot, and otherwise made it feel like a wildly fun day in the lab. Among the highlights of the week:

• Emmy winning TV host and engineer Nate Ball of the series Design Squad shared how his growing-up years of always taking things apart and putting them together led him to become an MIT-graduated engineer.

• STEM advocate Dr. Darryl Lee Banes uncorked one demonstration after another as he dazzled attendees while showing them the fun, entertaining aspects of science — which goes back to Tamara Robertson’s comments about “sneaky learning”. Sneaky… and awesome!

• NASA planetary protection engineer Dr. Moogega Cooper discussed the Earth’s current challenges with pollution, climate change and greenhouse gases, and also how today’s students will be even more important than she as they continue to grapple with the scientific challenges of our times.

• It was Science Meets Hip-Hop when Mr. D and Mr. Q-U-E stepped on stage. The two South Central Los Angeles middle school teachers, a.k.a. David “Mr. D” Landix and Lamar “Mr. Q-U-E” Queen, hit on using music to help foster learning and engagement in their math classes. Now, they present music and educational videos to other educators through their company, Music Notes.

• Former NASA rocket scientist Kevin J. DeBruin, a spacecraft designer, brought along one of the hottest career paths going today — space. With NASA, Blue Origin, Space X and Virgin Galactic all sending rockets and people into space in the past year, it is party time for those wishing to get into the space program. Kevin further emphasized the vast number of ways to do so, besides trying to squeeze onto the list of those hoping to become astronauts.

• The YouTube scientific DIY sensations, brothers Collins and Devan Key, brought the fun and laughs — and plenty of educational moments. Famous for stunts like the Pancake Challenge, the brothers are the most watched family-friendly YouTube channel (or channel anywhere!), with more than 30 million viewers.

• Mr. Science was in the house! Jason Lindsey, one of the most respected and interviewed advocates of science and math, got to step amongst his younger peers — future scientists and engineers — and talk about the wonders of science and the world and always being inquisitive, asking questions, learning every day, and trying things out. Jason does it all, as a STEM educator, meteorologist, author and science multimedia journalist — a prime example of the “five to six careers in a lifetime” mentioned earlier.

•  Robotics superstar Jasmine Lawrence, who is the product manager for the Everyday Robot Project at X, the moonshot factory, had plenty of eager listeners. Robotics is the hottest field on high school campuses today, with millions of participants, and for good reason: as Jasmine noted, robots will be even more common in businesses, classrooms and homes than they are already. The Everyday Robot Project ties directly to education, as she is building a learning robot.

• How many times have you heard of an engineer also being a successful singer? And how would that look when you pull it together? Singer/performer and aerospace engineer Roy Moye III, known as “The Singing Engineer”, rocked the stage with another STEmusic presentation while exploring with participants ways to put seemingly opposite careers together.

• The best peer-to-peer presentation came from Harvard biomedical engineering student Harrison Ngue, who is only a couple of years older than the students who flocked to his virtual event. Among other things, he told the story of how his mother’s cancer diagnosis when he was younger ignited his passion for healing others — and with that, the world of the medical researcher and finding cures, to which he plans to dedicate his life.

• A lot of music filled the stages, a nod to USASEF’s ability to weave music and entertainment into the program — but also the presenters who continually sent a message through their range of talents: “Diversify and excel at more than one thing. Then see how you can put them together. That’s the future.” Among those delivering it was the Hip-Hop Doctor himself, Maynard Okereke, who uses pop culture to create more fun for students learning STEM subjects and fields.

• Math is one of those subjects most people either love or hate. However, whether STEM students love or hate it, math is a major part of their future. A leading scientist trying to turn math haters into lovers, George Mason University mathematician Dr. Padhu Seshalyer, showed his audience a few of his methods while also talking about his mission to fulfill a childhood dream of helping others through math.

Of course, after an event like SciFest All Access that turned a week of their lives into a week in STEM heaven, it’s natural for participants to feel a little let-down. Not to worry. Soon, you can see the SciFest All Access videos on the official site (https://usasciencefestival.org/), and relive the amazing experience.

Now we all wait with great anticipation to see if we will be far enough beyond the pandemic for SciFest All Access to go live in 2022. That would be about the only way the experience could improve from what we received online in October. And to have the nation’s hottest young thinking minds in the same virtual room? Priceless.

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January 31, 2022
By I&T Today

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