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Swimming Upstream: Mobilizing America to Problem-Solve Again

08/30/2010 03:32 pm 15:32:31 | Updated May 25, 2011

"Never forget that only dead fish swim with the stream." -- Malcolm Muggeridge, English author and satirist

As an American, I am proud to identify with Thomas Edison, Walt Disney and Jonas Salk. I like to think that we, as a nation, are the world's leaders in innovation, energy and optimism. But there is a menacing cloud of malaise and pessimism engulfing the American psyche these days. I feel it, don't you?

Like driftwood moving aimlessly with the tide, we seem to have lost our ability, and our will, to effectively address and solve some of the most daunting problems facing us, ranging from the economy to national security and the crisis in our public schools.

The "can do" spirit that we once used to face these challenges head-on now appears to be in jeopardy -- from Washington, DC to Main Street. We seem more comfortable instead with a new order of the day: passing the buck, ignoring the problem or giving it cursory lip service. Lest our problems swallow us whole, it is paramount that we all become better problem solvers. Let's not be immobilized by our challenges, but instead mobilize to address the problems we are passionate about.

For the last three years, I've been investing my energy to help solve a critical need in America that I care about deeply; finding better ways to motivate and invigorate young students and innovators of tomorrow about science and engineering, and at the same time, expanding the public's appreciation and understanding of science and technology.

This dream has evolved into the inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival, the nation's first major celebration of science and technology of its kind. It will take place across the country this October 10-24, culminating in a massive Expo on the National Mall in Washington, DC on Oct 23-24.

The Festival will be the ultimate multi-cultural, multi-generational and multi-disciplinary celebration of science in the United States.

Albert Einstein, a man who knew a thing or two about solving problems, was known to say, "Problems cannot be solved by thinking within the framework in which the problems were created."

Indeed, as a successful start-up entrepreneur in the biotech industry, I was keenly aware of the decreasing number of students entering the fields of science and technology, and of the need for fresh and creative approaches to turn this problem around.

As a recent report from the Task Force on the Future of American Innovation (a coalition of leading high-tech firms and associations) says, "For more than half a century, the United States has led the world in scientific discovery and innovation. It has been a beacon, drawing the best scientists to its educational institutions, industries and laboratories from around the globe." However, the report continues, "in today's rapidly evolving competitive world, the United States can no longer take its supremacy for granted. Nations (such as those from Eastern Asia) are on a fast track to pass the United States in scientific excellence and technological innovation."

It is ironic, to say the least. American science and engineering -- whose very existence is premised on solving problems and whose innovation has given us such lofty technical advances as space exploration vehicles, water purification, the Internet, the iPhone, lasers and earthquake resistant buildings -- has for years been stumped (and often unfocused) over how to attract more talented young minds to its ranks.

I feel solutions to this problem must hinge on its ability to connect with young learners in a meaningful, personal, hands-on way that excites and motivates them about science, engineering and technology, including imparting to them how these fields impact everyday life.

My inspiration for the Festival came during a trip abroad with my family where I found out about international science festivals. I learned that such festivals have been popular for quite a while in Great Britain, Germany, Italy and parts of Asia.

These events are similar in scope to major art, music and film festivals that we have in the U.S. What's exciting is that the science festivals abroad are devoted specifically to celebrating all aspects of science through inspiring lectures, contests, hands-on activities and exhibits. In addition music, art, film, comedy are integrated into science topics.

The power of these events to inspire students (and others) about science in fun, creative and exciting ways really impressed me. I was quite surprised that such an approach could be effective in the U.S. to ignite the interest of students and the public in the power and potential of technology.

The author Victor Hugo once said, "An invasion of armies can be resisted, but not an idea whose time has come." This is how I felt about the Science Festival when we first introduced it on American soil last year in San Diego, CA.

The inaugural San Diego Science Festival was a huge success, attracting 350 science institutions and organizations, 500 programs and 250,000 participants during the month-long celebration which culminated with a huge Expo blow out in Balboa Park. We learned much from this event, including even better strategies for recruiting and organizing speakers, presenters and sponsors, and ways to enhance the development of event content -- all of which enabled us to launch a fantastic Festival in Washington.

The very favorite features from last year that we will be using again:

--Our Nifty Fifty Program in which we select leading scientists, engineers and high tech and life sciences entrepreneurs to go out to K-12 schools to talk about their work, the challenges and stumbling blocks they faced in their careers, how advances and principles in science and engineering can be applied to everyday life, and what students should be doing now if they are interested in entering such fields. Nifty Fifty presenters (which currently total more than 100) are selected based on their past success in speaking to and motivating young students, and for the creative and meaningful hands-on interaction and visuals they can include in their talks.

--Our Lunch With a Laureate sessions which bring Nobel scientists to public venues to speak informally over brownbag lunches about their work, including the honor of having received a Nobel Prize in their field. Twenty Nobel Laureates are participating. Both the Nifty Fifty and Lunch With a Laureate approaches serve to demystify and humanize scientists and their work for students and the public -- showing that many of these noted innovators came from the same 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. Based on the comments we received last year from students, parents, teachers and participating scientists, we know we are on the right track as we take the Festival to the national level.

In addition, following the strong suggestions of Chuck Vest, President of the National Academy of Engineering, and John Watson, Associate Director of the Von Liebig Center for Entrepreneurism and Technology Advancement at the University of California, San Diego and past-President of the American Institute of Medical and Biological Engineering, I added "Engineering" to the title of the event to reflect that field's vital role in technology.

The inaugural USA Science & Engineering Festival is shaping up to be the world's largest celebration of science and engineering of its kind! It involves more than 750 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 students, parents, teachers and other visitors to our nationwide schedule of activities.

The hands-on Expo exhibits -- designed to educate as well as enthrall -- are arranged under creative, timely themes that convey how science and engineering play an integral part in everyday life -- from music and sports to art and health.

Such exhibits as "Science Rappers," "The Physics of Skateboarding," and "The Science of First Responders" are sure to get across to students just how cool technology is, 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.

As we seek to inform and excite students and the public about the wonders of technology, I am also extremely proud of the role the Festival is playing to bring scientists and engineers from both the private and public sectors together with schools, teachers and communities across America to work toward this common goal.

The national Festival has the participation and collaboration of more than:

--125 Professional Science & Engineering Societies including the National Academy of Engineering, National Academy of Sciences, AAAS, American Physical Society, American Chemical Society, IEEE, American Woman in Sciences, Society of Hispanic Engineers, and the National Society of Black Engineers.

--100 Universities/Colleges/Research Institutes including Harvard, MIT, Princeton, Georgetown, University of California San Diego, University of California, Berkeley, Johns Hopkins, U.S. Naval Academy, Duke, University of Maryland, J. Craig Venter Research Institute, and Carnegie Institute of Sciences.

--50 Government Agencies and Federal Laboratories including NIH, NSF, NASA, EPA, FDA, USDA, DARPA, Office of Naval Research, Department of Energy, Air Force Research Labs, Army Research Labs, Lawrence Berkeley Laboratory, Fermi Accelerator Facility, and Princeton Plasma Physics.

-- 50 High Technology and Life Science Companies including Lockheed Martin, Intel, Johnson and Johnson, Motorola, Genentech, CISCO, Northrop Grumman, ResMed, Hitachi, and Bechtel.

-- 75 Informal Science Outreach Organizations including the Smithsonian, American Museum of Natural History, U.S. Botanic Gardens, and Koshland Museum.

In addition, feedback from U.S. policymakers has also been quite positive, and bipartisan. The Festival has formed an Honorary Congressional Host Committee made up of almost 100 members of the House and Senate from both sides of the political aisle. (Which proves that Congress, even in its season of discontent, can agree on something meaningful and worthwhile!)

With the added support and ideas from of like-minded citizens from all walks of life, I am convinced that together we can find new and effective ways to meet the challenge of motivating and invigorating the next generation of innovative young minds in technology. The USA Science and Engineering Festival is one sure-fire way to approach this timely problem. And we invite you to "swim upstream" with us to help make it happen!