WashingtonExec’s Julie Reiss spoke with the USA Science and Engineering Festival’s co-founder and organizer Larry Bock about this week’s festival, April 24-27. For weekend events you can expect an area the size of five football fields with 3,000 hands-on activities, stage shows of live music, dozens of celebrities and lots of food at the largest-ever STEM Festival in the nation. There is no entrance fee at the Washington Convention Center for the epic-sized expo, which has caught the attention of U.S. Senators. The U.S. Senate officially recognized this week as “National STEM Week” in honor of the festival.
WashingtonExec: Larry, you founded and organized the largest ever STEM expo in the world here in Washington, D.C. What can you tell us about this week’s festival?
Larry Bock: This year our goal is to make this festival the Super Bowl of STEM. We are taking over the entire Walter E. Washington Convention Center and using every last inch of the space there. We have close to 1,000 organizations participating doing 3,000 hands-on, interactive activities plus 150 stage shows. We are also hosting close to two dozen major STEM professional conferences at the convention center at the same time as ours, such as the U.S. News STEM Solutions Conference. In addition to the K-12 and family audience that typically comes to the festival, we will be bringing about 5,000 STEM professionals from around the country to the expo.
“I thought it would be a really cool idea to create such a festival in my hometown of San Diego.”
WashingtonExec: The festival began on the Mall and has grown tremendously since the inaugural expo in 2010. What inspired you to create this national STEM fair hosting hundreds of thousands of people?
Larry Bock: I spent most of my career as a high-tech entrepreneur and could not recruit Americans to the advanced science positions that those companies were requiring because they were not going into those fields. I had actually taken a year off and taken my family to Europe, and it was in that context that I bumped into these international science festivals that actually hadn’t come to the United States yet. I thought it would be a really cool idea to create such a festival in my hometown of San Diego. I did that, and one of my lead sponsors, Lockheed Martin, thought it was such a great event that Ray Johnson, the chief technology officer of Lockheed Martin, challenged me to take it national and do it in Washington, D.C. The underlying premise on why we created this festival is that we believe that society gets what it celebrates. As a society, we celebrate athletes, pop stars and Hollywood actors and actresses, and we generate a lot of them, but we don’t celebrate scientists and engineers. It was our goal to put on the largest celebration of science and engineering so that is what we endeavored to do in our first year.
WashingtonExec: That’s an interesting idea that makes sense — we get what we celebrate. Explain how Congress has become involved in recognizing the festival.
Larry Bock: We have two ways in which Congress is recognizing the festival. Number one is that this year we are trying to name the week as National STEM Week so we have congressional resolutions in recognizing the festival and naming that National STEM Week. The second is that we have an honorary Congressional host committee of the festival, which has about 150 members, both House and Senate members that help us promote the goals and ideas of the USA Science & Engineering Festival. At the last festival, we had close to 50 Congressional members come to visit the booths of their respective states’ exhibits. Interestingly, the festival receives bi-partisan support, from the most conservative to the most liberal. Nobody can find a reason not to do this.
WashingtonExec: Amazing support. What’s different this festival year from previous years? Larry Bock: Number one is that it’s doubled in size. Number two, we have a lot more areas that we’ve never featured at the festival. With more than 3 million unfilled jobs that require STEM experience, we are highlighting skills-based and “do-it-yourself” professions — with the help of Mike Rowe of the TV show “Dirty Jobs” — to emphasize the dire need for skilled workers. Another big area this year is both robotics and commercial drones — we have a lot of companies focused in that area. A third big area this year is in the field of personalized medicine. A fourth big area is the DIY/Maker revolution, which enables tinkerers to create the products they want very quickly.
“Interestingly, the festival receives bi-partisan support, from the most conservative to the most liberal. Nobody can find a reason not to do this.”
WashingtonExec: So the festival has doubled in size from 2010 or 2012?
Larry Bock: It literally has doubled from 2010 to 2012, and it has doubled again from 2012 to this year. Last time, we had approximately 600 organizations participating in the festival with about 1,000 exhibit spaces, and this year, we have more than 1,000 organizations participating with about 3,000 exhibit spaces.
WashingtonExec: That’s a huge jump in size every year. What do STEM fields and your future festivals look like in 20 to 30 years?
Larry Bock: I think more and more interactive experiences move online. One of the interesting things about the festival is the interpersonal nature of it. It is really a one-on-one activity with the audience and that is something that we do want to keep. I think we will see a separation of the sciences at the event — Biology, Chemistry, Physics and so forth. Also in the future, you are going to see more and mointerdisciplinary sciences at the event. My goal is that as many people locally would know about the festival as know that a Washington Redskins game is being played — that it will reach that kind of acclaim.
WashingtonExec: Do you have anything that you would like to add that we didn’t talk about?
Larry Bock: Some of the great performers that are coming to the event this year — we have people from Mike Rowe of “Dirty Jobs,” Bill Nye the Science Guy, science writers from TV shows like “The Big Bang Theory,” “House,” “Breaking Bad,” Danica McKellar from “The Wonder Years,” and Crystal Lee, the runner up to Miss America. This year my goal was to make you experience every emotion in science, whether it’s fear — science of the zombie apocalypse; laughing —science comedians; the joy of music — the Grammy award-winning group, “They Might Be Giants;” and deep thinking — people from the Innocence Project bringing people that may have been wrongfully convicted and then freed due to DNA evidence. We also have a young woman named Amanda Boxtel who is a paraplegic who will walk on our stage utilizing a 3D-printed exoskeleton. We are trying to strike every emotion with science.
WashingtonExec: What about event-goers using their creativity? It’s an important ingredient in getting people engaged.
Larry Bock: Every single exhibit at the expo is meant to be hands-on, interactive, fun and entertaining. It’s not a science poster session.It’s exciting and educational. We have a huge number of makers, tinkerers, hackers and so forth. You are going to be milling and using 3D printers to create the things that you want to make. There’s nothing else like it.