Igniting Curiosity in Children at the USA Science & Engineering Festival

By Kathryn Ranhorn

SciFest 2012
The event was the 2nd largest event ever held at the Washington Convention Center (picture retrieved from USA Science & Engineering Facebook page).
May 12, 2012

As I wrap up my first year of graduate school, I can’t help but be reflective. I think back on the development of my curiosity in science, and the many experiences which shaped it: that first time I arrived at Olduvai, just a young 20-year-old, my first dissection in high school anatomy class, or that middle school marine biology trip I took to the Florida Keys. One particular memory etched in my mind is my first visit to the Orlando Science Center. I was only 8, but I distinctly remember wandering the vast exhibits, peering up at the giant dinosaurs. I was in absolute awe of the universe, and eager to learn more. I didn’t know it at the time, but a seed of curiosity had firmly taken root.

It’s clear to me now that the future of science education hinges upon providing such awe-inspiring experiences to the next generation of young minds, and last month I had the unique opportunity to partake in one.

The 2nd annual USA Science and Engineering Festival at the Washington Convention Center attracted more than 300,000 people, many of them middle and high school students, over the course of one weekend. Free and open to the public, the mega-event featured Bill Nye himself, as well as the stars from Mythbusters, tours of the actual Magic School Bus, and dozens of talks from practicing scientists. It also featured over 550 hands-on science and engineering exhibits, representing both the public and private sector, including NASA, Lockheed Martin, SpaceX, and the American Museum of Natural History. Our program, CASHP, was also present, invited as a representative for the National Science Foundation.

CASHP faculty member Brian Richmond and several graduate students had the opportunity to talk about our research not only to other scholars and reporters, but best of all, to children. Our exhibit focused on fossil hominin footprints and what they can tell us about the evolution of the human gait. We had on display a cast of the 3.65-million-year-old footprints from Laetoli, Tanzania, as well as a cast of a human foot to be compared with that of a chimpanzee. Students also were able to compare fossil cranial casts including Australopithecus africanus (Stw 5), Homo ergaster (KNM-ER 3733), Paranthropus boisei (OH 5) and Paranthropus aethiopicus (KNM-WT 17000), with casts of a modern adult human, juvenile human, chimpanzee, and gorilla. Of course, our display wouldn’t be complete without several post-cranial elements of actual bone!

Students of all ages came up to our table, their eyes wide with curiosity. “Is that a real bone?” one would ask. “Can I touch it? Ewwww!” At first it was intimidating; how does one go about teaching a 10-year-old about human evolution? But it soon became a game. “So which one of these do you think is a modern human?” I asked. “What kind of foot do you think could have made footprints like that?” “How old do you think this individual was?” My questions evoked interesting and well-formed responses; one little girl promptly identified almost every anatomical feature on our table!

Of course, not all of the students’ responses were simple. “How did he die?” one of them asked, after I pointed out the erupted first molar of the juvenile mandible, which indicated the individual had been about 6 years old. “Well,” I said, “this is just a cast, kind of like something you might make out of really cool Play-Doh. But sometimes when people die, they donate their bodies to science so that we can study them.” “That’s awesome! I want to do that!” he said. And thus the afternoon flew by, dozens of energetic youngsters engaged in discussions of fossils, anatomy, and evolution.

On my way out of the event, I took the long route and strolled up and down the aisles to see what other exhibits were teaching. Dancing robots, controlled-mini explosions, and flight simulators caught my eye. Instantly that child-like curiosity returned, and I left feeling excited as ever about my research. On the way to the metro, I navigated through herds of young students en route to their buses which would carry them home to Virginia or Maryland. I couldn’t help but wonder: did we plant any seeds today?