THE BLOG
09/05/2010 07:22 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How to Make an Impact in These Changing Times

The chance to make a difference -- the opportunity to leave things just a little better than the way we found them -- when you think about it, that's what really drives most of us throughout life.

Our kids are no different. Give most idealistic teenagers a righteous cause or a chance to change the world, and they'll eagerly grab it, especially if they deem it exciting, important and meaningful, and if they see it as an opportunity to use their talents to solve real-life problems.

The same seems to hold true when kids begin to consider what career to follow. Which is why, as our world turns increasingly high-tech, we need to do a better job of letting children know of, and prepare them for, the hot, competitive technological fields of tomorrow in which they can make an impact.

Ironically, in this age of megabytes and nanoseconds, there is one message that heretofore has been poorly communicated to kids: You can make a difference -- even change the world -- through science, engineering and technology!

Often wrongly perceived as dull and nerdy, these fields are at the heart of what impacts virtually every aspect of daily life -- from the cars we drive and the iPhones we use to the medication we take and the food we eat.

Talk about a chance to make a difference! Today's scientists and engineers are at the forefront of solving some of our most challenging problems today. This includes the treatment and diagnosis of disease, providing alternate sources of clean fuel and energy, protecting us from acts of terrorism, providing for a clean environment and adequate water supply, space exploration that gives further insight into our planetary system and origins, and technological advances in computers, telecommunications, robotics, household appliances and other areas that continually enhance our standard of living.

Yet herein lies the problem. As technological innovation makes quantum leaps into the future, America -- long considered the world leader in technology -- is not educating enough scientists and engineers to meet the demand, a situation fueled by the fact that fewer young students at the K-12 school level here are showing an interest in entering these fields.

"America faces the very real prospect of losing its science and engineering competence in an era in which technological innovation is the key to economic competitiveness, national security and social well-being," says James Duderstadt, president emeritus of the University of Michigan and founder and director of the Millennium Project, a University of Michigan initiative studying the impact of future technologies on society.

Duderstadt and other experts warn of a "gathering storm" that is building toward a national crisis of shrinking technological innovation because the country is graduating and retaining fewer engineers and scientists.

It is clear: We must come up with more creative and innovative ways to excite and motivate children about the marvels of science and engineering in our K-12 schools. For instance, have you wondered what would happen if schools partnered with scientists and engineers from public and private institutions for ongoing, meaningful, hands-on interaction with K-12 students in science and engineering? In addition to enhancing existing school curriculum, think of the impact this would have on infusing kids with a new spirit of curiosity, understanding and adventure about these professions, as well as students' potential place in them.

This is the highly engaging approach that we have developed for the upcoming inaugural USA Science and Engineering Festival, the nation's first major celebration of science and technology of its kind. The event takes place across the country this October 10-24, culminating in a massive Expo on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. on Oct 23-24.

The Festival, which builds upon the success and lessons learned from our pilot Science Festival held last year in San Diego, is not only designed to motivate and invigorate the next generation of young innovators about science and engineering, it is also intended to expand the public's appreciation and understanding of science and technology.

The event brings together a wide array of world-class scientists, engineers, biotech entrepreneurs and Nobel Laureates with students, teachers, parents and communities, and involves more than 550 leading science and engineering organizations; more than 1,500 hands-on Expo activities, 75 stage shows, and much more -- all expected to attract more than half a million visitors and participants.

Throughout the Festival, more than 25 satellite events held in a wide variety of locations across the nation including Tucscon, AZ, Corning, NY, Columbia, SC, Austin, TX, Clifton, NJ, and Berkeley, CA, will link the event in national celebration.

But most important, the Festival will bring kids face to face with innovators in science and engineering for a personal look at how these professions are truly making a difference!

For instance, through the Festival's Nifty Fifty Program school presentations, students will get the chance to meet and hear such renowned scientists and engineers as:

-- Robert Armiger, biomedical engineer, Johns Hopkins University, who is using advanced research in electrical and bio engineering and computer science (including 3D computer gaming technology) to create the world's most advanced bionic arm for amputees, including those injured soldiers returning from the Iraq and Afghanistan conflicts.

-- Bonnie Bassler, Professor, Molecular Biology, Princeton University, whose landmark work investigating how bacteria "talk," or communicate, with each other is helping to develop more potent drug therapies to combat some of the world's most deadly microbes.

-- James Kakalios, professor, Physics, University of Minnesota, who is combining his love of science and sci-fi comic book superheroes to teach others, including Hollywood, about principles of physics. He gained international attention when he served as scientific consultant for the 2009 superhero film, The Watchmen.

-- Aprille Ericsson, Aerospace Engineer, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, who has been involved in the major space missions conducted by NASA in the last 20 years, and is currently designing and testing high-tech instruments that will help spacecraft map the lunar surface in preparation for future moon voyages.

What's more, through the Festival's Lunch With a Laureate sessions (in which students and the public get the chance to hear and converse with Nobel Laureates in science over informal brown bag lunches), attendees will meet such Laureates as:

-- Sir Harold Kroto, English chemist who received the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1996 for his landmark work in discovering a class of carbon compounds known as fullerenes (Buckyballs).

-- Douglas Osheroff, received the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1996 for discovery of superfluidity in helium-3.

-- Baruch Blumberg, physician and scientist; recipient of the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1976 for discoveries shedding light on the mechanisms behind how infectious diseases originate and are spread.

These up-close-and-personal approaches serve to demystify and humanize scientists and their work for students -- showing that many of these noted innovators came from the same childhood background as the average child, and faced the same challenges, fears and concerns that all of us face as we grow up and enter our chosen fields.

In addition, the event's compendium of interactive, hands-on Expo exhibits and stage shows will also show just how cool and relevant science and engineering is, including the integral part these disciplines play in everyday life, such as in music, sports, art and health.

Science and engineering are truly all around, as kids will surely learn from exhibits and stage shows ranging from "Science Rappers," and "The Physics of Skateboarding" to "The Science of First Responders," in addition to presentations demonstrating how scientists are using hip hop music to teach math, and the important part science played in uncovering historic works of art.

Science and engineering are not only jobs of the future, they are in demand and well-paying. (For instance, the average national salary for an engineering graduate with a four-year degree is over $60,000 a year.)

But most important, such professions give innovators of today and tomorrow the tools to solve some of the most daunting problems of our time, helping to make a real difference in the world. In these complex and changing times, that's something American kids certainly need to hear more often. Check out usasciencefestival.com.