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Sports Science and Solar System Tours Draw Children to Family Science Days

Yearly, Family-Friendly Event Coincides with AAAS Annual Meeting

As a postdoctoral fellow in the University of Pennsylvania’s Human Motion Lab, John Drazan studies the biomechanics of sports performance, injury and rehabilitation.

Drazan is also an accomplished athlete in his own right, having played college basketball while pursuing his undergraduate degree in physics at the State University of New York College at Geneseo. On Saturday, however, speaking to a crowd of children from a stage at AAAS Family Science Days, he showed no delusions of grandeur with regard to his abilities.

“One of the guiding principles of my life has been the fact that I’m 6’7”, and so is LeBron James, so why do I stink?” said Drazan. “The beautiful thing about math and science is that we can actually break down human performance to a level where we can figure out how people’s muscles work, how their nerves work, and then understand athletic performance.”

The American Association for the Advancement of Science hosts Family Science Days each February as a way to open the organization’s annual meeting to the public and give scientists attending the meeting an opportunity to witness successful outreach, as local science organizations engage kindergarten through 12th-grade students in their communities. This year, the free, two-day event features interactive stations run by 22 universities, science museums, laboratories, and other exhibitors at the Sheraton Grand Hotel in downtown Seattle.

The programming also includes talks and demonstrations from 12 “Meet a Scientist” speakers. Drazan, who received the 2020 AAAS Early Career Award for Public Engagement Friday evening, used his half-hour of stage time to discuss his work developing motion capture sensors, studying the recovery of NBA players who suffer ruptured tendons, and more. Later Saturday afternoon, Kristen Lear, who serves as a role model for middle school girls through the AAAS IF/THEN Ambassadors program, talked about her career as a bat conservationist.

“At the basis of all public engagement is dialogue,” said Stacey Baker, who organizes Family Science Days for the AAAS Center for Public Engagement with Science and Technology. “This event allows kids to ask their questions in real time and get them answered in real time. They’re able to see a diversity of scientists and get the full spectrum of what a scientist can look like.”

Miniature solar cars were on display at Family Science Days. | Jordan A. Pickett/The Daily of the University of Washington

At booths steps away from the Meet a Scientist stage, children wore virtual reality headsets provided by the Pacific Science Center and controlled miniature cars, designed by researchers at the University of Washington’s Clean Energy Institute, with silicon panels that convert sunlight into electricity. At a station run by the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, marine scientists displayed jars of water representing many of the 21 colors on the Forel-Ule scale, which captures the range of water types that exist in nature.

“I went to almost every one of the exhibits,” said Mustafa Egal, a 13-year-old from SeaTac, Wash. “I think my favorite was the DNA one. You get two pieces of licorice and toothpicks with gummy bears on them. You can make it into a double helix, which is the same shape as DNA.”

Maddie Koeppe, an 11-year-old from Seattle, attended the event with Kristina Jordahl, a postdoctoral fellow at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. They met through a mentorship program organized by Koeppe’s school.

Koeppe enjoyed getting a tour of the Solar System from University of Washington astronomy students in their mobile planetarium. After highlighting Earth’s closest neighbors, the guide zoomed out and fast-forwarded tens of millions of years, until the Milky Way and its neighboring Andromeda Galaxy merged into one.

“It was really cool,” said Koeppe. “I had no idea that there was even another galaxy that was super close to ours. I was wondering if any stars would collide or if any would get ejected from the galaxies.”

This weekend marks Family Science Days’ first return to Seattle since 2004, the event’s inaugural year. It has been held in 10 cities and will add another next year, when the AAAS Annual Meeting takes place in Phoenix.


[Associated image credit: Jordan A. Pickett/The Daily of the University of Washington]