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AAAS Volunteers Boost USA Science & Engineering Festival

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At the recent USA Science & Engineering Festival, hands-on science exhibits, stage presentations and informal "ask-the-scientist" sessions were made possible by some 75 volunteers, including 34 non-staff members.

Steven Munger, who offered a brief, accessible talk on smell, taste and flavor as part of the AAAS Meet the Scientists lineup, said that he appreciated the opportunity to engage with a public audience. "It's hard for scientists to complain about the general public not understanding science if we don't make an effort to explain it," said Munger, a professor of anatomy and neurobiology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, where he and his team study issues such as the structural basis of sweetness and the genetics of bitter taste. "I see it as part of our job and our responsibility."

"It's hard for scientists to complain about the general public not understanding science if we don't make an effort to explain it."

Steven Munger, University of Maryland School of Medicine

Another presenter, psycholinguist Polly O'Rourke, expressed similar sentiments. "It's nice to be able to increase appreciation for, and understanding of what we do," said O'Rourke, assistant research scientist in the Center for Advanced Study of Language at the University of Maryland, College Park. Following her presentation on how she measures electrical activity in the brain to better understand language learning, audience members asked her about the implications of her work for learning a second language, and for people with autism as well as aphasia-speech loss caused by damage to the brain.

The USA Science & Engineering Festival, which drew more than 350,000 people, featured AAAS tabletop activities on the "Science of the Senses" — jelly beans for tasting, Braille blocks for touching, bottled smells, headphones containing musical riddles, and a paper dragon that seemed to follow children with its large eyes. AAAS offerings at the festival also featured two days of Meet the Scientists stage presentations, plus volunteer scientists and engineers who had agreed to answer questions informally lobbed at them by attendees. Students were encouraged to ask the volunteers about their research, career paths, education, day-to-day experiences, and more.

An overwhelming response from AAAS members triggered an expansion of the association's ask-a-scientist-style roundtables, said Linda Hosler, public engagement program associate. "Originally, we only needed 15-20 scientists for the career talks, but we had so many volunteers that we asked the festival if we could have another slot. That way, we didn't have to turn anyone down. It was wonderful to see how many AAAS members were excited to volunteer!"

Dione Rossiter, the AAAS project director in charge of coordinating volunteers for the Science of the Senses activities, said that she also was happily surprised by many offers of help. "Over half of the volunteers were not AAAS staff," she said. The volunteer corps included current and former AAAS Science & Technology Policy fellows, Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows, and area researchers. As examples, neuroscientists John Wellard of the Australian Embassy, Rachel Kay of the Children's National Health System, Jennifer Shieh of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and Dorothy Jones-Davis, AAAS S&T Fellow at the National Science Foundation, engaged festival-goers in exploring the physiology, function, and wonders of the human brain. Claudia Pharis, chair and CEO of The Benjamin Banneker Institute for Science and Technology was also on hand.

"You want to make sure that younger people know there are a lot of fun jobs in science."

Thandi Onami, immunologist and former AAAS S&T Policy Fellow

This year, the festival allocated some 1,000 square feet of exhibit space for family-friendly AAAS activities on the five senses and the brain. "We designed the exhibits with input from some of the top scientists working on sensory perception," said Bob Hirshon, program director for technology and learning, who developed the activity stations. "Charles Wysocki at Monell Chemical Senses Center and Leslie Vosshall at Rockefeller University helped with the smell and taste activities. Auditory researcher Diana Deutsch provided examples of 'auditory illusions and paradoxes' for our hearing activities."

At the science of smell table, Jennifer Holshue and Larissa Benjamin of EurekAlert!, the AAAS science-news service, asked young people to sniff bottles containing three different scents — a synthetic musk used in perfumes (galaxolide), the taint of wild boars (adrostenone), and a spice (cilantro). Colored stickers on a large chart illustrated the different responses of boys versus girls, and adults versus kids. The purpose of the exercise, Benjamin said, was to show kids that "smell is in the nose of the beholder." One child told her, for instance, that the perfume scent "smelled like teachers."

Nearby, Rossiter played a trivia game with students as part of the AAAS brain activity. By spinning a wheel, children were able to select one of the senses. When the wheel landed on "hearing," for instance, Rossiter said. "All living creatures have ears. Is that true?" A boy correctly answered that this statement was false. "That's right," Rossiter said. "Snakes hear with their jaws!"

Meanwhile, at the AAAS Career roundtables, two former AAAS S&T Policy Fellows — immunologist Thandi Onami and marine scientist Adam Jones — gathered around a table with Drexel chemist Mohammed Nozari, ready to field random questions from children. Scott Krepel, a nuclear engineer with a hearing impairment, arranged blue and yellow clay models on a nearby table, where he discussed nuclear fission with the help of an interpreter. "This kind of event is so important in the current climate," Onami said, in explaining why she had volunteered her time. "You want to make sure that younger people know there are a lot of fun jobs in science." Explaining immunology to students is easy, she added: "They're naturally curious, so you just ask them, `Did you ever have a cold?'"

Jones had brought a scrapbook of photographs with him to explain how researchers dive underwater to study sponges and to collect algae and bacteria in search of molecules with potentially therapeutic properties. Nozari drove all the way from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, to Washington, D.C., to answer questions about solar-energy engineering. "If they see this simple solar cell," Nozari said as two children approached to take a look at the device, "they might get new ideas about their future."

AAAS is a founding partner of the USA Science & Engineering Festival and has had a presence at two prior events. AAAS CEO Alan I. Leshner once again this year took part in the festival's "Nifty Fifty" lecture series, providing a talk on neuroscience to local high-school students.


Ginger Pinholster

Former Director, Office of Public Programs