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AAAS Volunteers Promote STEM at National Festival

Sally Mitchell walks festivalgoers through the taste table experiment. Photo courtesy of Sally Mitchell.

Members of the AAAS community came together this weekend, April 14–16, to volunteer at the fourth biennial USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C. More than 365,000 people attended this year's festival and many of them stopped by the AAAS booth, which focused on the Science of the Senses. Stations examined each of the five senses, as well as the role the brain plays in tying them together.

AAAS was represented by volunteers from many areas of its community: Staff from several offices enthusiastically took part, as did AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, local representatives from the AAAS/SSE STEM Volunteer ProgramAAAS Mass Media Science & Engineering Fellows, association members, and friends of the organization. Five Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows, K–12 STEM educators who are spending a year working in federal agencies or Congressional offices on educational programs or policy, also contributed their time, expertise, and energy to pass on knowledge about the senses.

Einstein Fellows Cristina Veresan, Sally Mitchell, and Jessica Mulhern at the USA Science & Engineering Festival. Photo courtesy of Sally Mitchell.

Sally Mitchell, one of the Albert Einstein Distinguished Educator Fellows and a AAAS teacher member, said, "I loved the team effort for the five senses to work. I loved the fact that the AAAS booth was so interactive with the brain, eyeball, ear, and mouth," as well as with the senses of smell and touch.

Visitors to AAAS's Science of the Senses booth were treated to hands-on activities relating to each of the senses. At the Touch table, for instance, attendees could learn to read Braille and could seek matching items in a closed container using just their hands. At the Smell station, AAAS volunteers were joined by volunteers from the Monnell Chemical Senses Center, who brought chemicals that allowed festivalgoers to learn more about their "noseprint" and how they experienced certain scents. Optical and auditory illusions challenged visitors to learn more about their senses of hearing and vision.

Mitchell, who is currently placed with the Department of Energy Office of Science, spent her volunteer shift at the Taste table. She said her background was helpful in explaining the science behind the experiment, which had participants hold their nose and then try to determine if a red jelly bean was cinnamon or cherry. "I am a food chemist and I was able to use my expertise in explaining the sense of taste and differentiating it from flavor. Taste = chemical and Flavor = sensory. That was the lesson taught at my booth. It was so much fun."

As a high school chemistry teacher from East Syracuse Minoa Central High School in New York, Mitchell said she knows "the importance of interacting with young minds and introducing them to all areas of careers, not just STEM careers."

“The Science of the Senses area was bustling the entire weekend and more than 60 volunteers brought great energy and knowledge to all the activities,” said Suzanne Thurston, project director for AAAS’s Education and Human Resources programs and one of the organizers of AAAS’s Festival activities. “It was especially rewarding to have an incredible mix of AAAS staff, members, fellows, friends, and family all working together to create a fun and successful experience for attendees.” 

AAAS Member Tony Tripp explores optical illusions with a visitor at the Vision table. Photo Credit: Kirstin Fearnley.

Mitchell summarized the feeling of many of the AAAS volunteers, "The USA Science and Engineering Festival touched so many lives this past weekend and maybe influenced many young minds to the areas of STEM fields. The time we all take now to educate the young will pay off in the future."


[In-text photo credits: (Top) Students at the Touch table decipher Braille and match items using just their hands. Photo Credit: Kirstin Fearnley. (Bottom) AAAS Policy Fellow Kevin Ashley listens to one of the auditory illusions at the Hearing table to familiarize himself with the experiment. Photo Credit: Sally Mitchell.]

This post originally appeared on Science NetLinks.


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