Eight Bowdoin students and three faculty contibuted to Larry Bock's effort to "[bring] science back to center stage," with the College's delegation manning both robotics and neuroscience booths at the festival in Washington D.C. last weekend.
Executive Director Larry Bock '81 founded the first-annual US Science and Engineering Festival with the firm belief that "society gets what it celebrates."
The free all-ages event began October 10 with presentations and lectures, but culminated in last weekend's Grand Finale Expo on the National Mall, with 1,500 hands-on activities and 75 stage shows taking up 11 major city blocks of activity.
The self-stated mission of the festival was to "reinvigorate the interest of our nation's youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by producing and presenting the most compelling, exciting, educational and entertaining science gatherings in the United States."
Bock was a biochemistry major while at Bowdoin and went on to found Nanosys, a major leader in the nanotechnology industry.
"I could no longer recruit Americans to the high technology jobs of the start-ups I was creating because they weren't going into these fields," said Bock in an e-mail to the Orient.
Representing Bowdoin's Robocup team and robotics program at the event were Ben Johnson '11, Nathan Merritt '11, Jack Morrison '11 and Brian Jacobel '14, with faculty advisor and Professor of Computer Science Eric Chown. Their tent displayed a programmed humanoid robot shooting soccer balls into a goal.
"Kids were really interested in how [the robot] knew how to kick the ball and how we were controlling it, so that was fun to show them that there was something more to robots than using a remote control," said Johnson.
Bowdoin is one of the few undergraduate universities to participate in Robocup, an international robotic competition aiming to create autonomous human-sized robots to defeat the most recent-World Cup champions by 2050.
"We put the Bowdoin name out there," said Chown.
"So many people came up to us saying, are you guys part of a company...are you selling these products, are you selling this software, and we're like 'No, we're just undergraduates; we're just doing this in our free time,'" Johnson said.
The College's neuroscience booth showcased experiments about nerve impulses and featured Audrey Bergeron '12, Abishag Suresh '12, Anna Ausubel '10 and Anirudh Sreekrishan '12, with Professor of Neuroscience Patsy Dickinson and Associate Professor of Neuroscience Hadley Horch.
Visitors at the booth could either participate in a demonstration where a back massager was placed on a tendon below the elbow to trick the brain into thinking the arm was more bent than it was, or they could watch amplified electrical impulses on a screen as they moved up and down the nerves of cockroach legs.
"Our booth wasn't really directly related to what we research here at Bowdoin, it was more a cool way to get kids thinking about how they perceive where their body is and how you perceive the world around you," said Ausubel.
The groups arrived onsite at 8:30 a.m. and worked until 6:30 p.m. with people of all ages and experiences, though Chown noted the participants were primarily children aged 5-12.
"For both Bowdoin groups, it was a big success. Both of us had crowds of people from when it opened until when it closed each day...There were generally 20-30 people gathered around [the robotics] exhibit. Constantly. And that's all the room there was," said Chown.
"We were all moderately panicked going in because we had no idea what to expect," he said.
The festival website estimates over 500,000 people attended over the course of the weekend. Bock said he is taking a breather to consider what the expo's future will be.
Morrison, this year's captain of the Robocup team, agrees with Bock on the necessity of a national emphasis on science for youth.
"We've had Robocup competitions all over the world...in Germany, it was on every night for an hour on national television. It was in Atlanta here, and I don't think it got really any coverage," he said.
He noted the palpable atmosphere of enthusiasm about science knowledge at the fair.
"[The Bowdoin students] were so enthusiastic, even the second day, where I was just dragging. [They] put on a good face and really sold the experience," said Chown.
"I'm hoping to be a biology teacher, so it was a neat experience to spend the whole day, whole couple days, literally just teaching science, and telling it to different people and trying to find different ways to describe what we were doing so it would be meaningful for them," said Ausubel.
"You just felt like you were part of something," said Chown.