Nathan Emmatty, 10, of Herndon, Va., with grandmother Melisa Mulenthaler, proudly displays his boat. | Selby Frame/AAAS
It didn't seem to matter much that the First Lady was just steps away, giving a healthy food demonstration. Or that First Dogs Bo and Sunny were lapping up attention on the South Lawn of the White House.
The kids that flocked to the Eggsperiment Zone were on a pressing mission: to build a better boat.
In a day that saw some 30,000 visitors visit the White House for the 136th annual Easter Egg Roll, AAAS's hands-on science activity stations drew children large and small.
"I like how there are different stations," said Rasheed Abdullah, of Maryland, his hands deep in a tub of water. "I'm learning about what floats and what doesn't."
While kid brother Amir looked on, Rasheed patiently dropped everyday objects into the water to test whether they would float or sink. He marked his results on a hypothesis sheet, where he scratched advance guesses beside actual test results.
A light bulb seemed to go off as he scanned the Sink or Float sheet: "I should probably put things that sink on the boat for weight or it will tip over," he observed. Next stop was a boatbuilding station where he could invent his own vessel, made from straws, cups, foil or popsicle sticks.
This kind of hands-on immersion in science—free from the pressures of classwork or testing—is a critical part of encouraging the next generation of STEM-savvy learners, said Dione Rossiter, AAAS Education and Human Resources project director.
"The idea of exploration-based science activity is becoming more prevalent," said Rossiter, who organized the more than 40 AAAS staff volunteers assisting at the event. "It's also about finding science in everyday things. We want to really let the kids take ownership of science and their learning. Teaching them that a hypothesis is like a guess and [that] it's okay if it's different from what the results were."
Some children were able to take the principles of density and buoyancy inherent in the activity and use them to build successful boats. Others simply experimented with materials by trial and error.
Nathan Emmatty, 10, of Herndon, Va., gleefully launched his vessel, a foil-covered platform with cups for flotation devices. He was met by a round of applause and a shout-out from AAAS volunteer staffer Kavita Berges: "I think we've got a born scientist here!" Emmatty beamed.
"This is his stuff. He loves science," said grandmother Melisa Mulenthaler, looking on as Emmatty tested his vessel's buoyancy with a load of "cargo" (dried beans). "Look how thrilled he is. How wonderful that science is here as well as arts and crafts."
Educational outreach is more than a sideline to scientific research these days, noted Rossiter. Many funders require scientists to incorporate outreach into their grant planning.
"There has been a big push with this administration to booster U.S. competitiveness, and with that there's a stronger push to develop STEM outreach to build young leaders," noted Rossiter.
Science outreach gets a super-boost at the Washington, DC Convention Center, April 26 through 27, 2014, during the 3rd Annual USA Science & Engineering Festival, the largest STEM event in the world. AAAS is a partnering organization of the free festival, which draws some 350,000 attendees. For more information, visit usasciencefestival.org.