A society is what is celebrates—that’s why it’s no wonder that the United States has regressed in terms of its global education standing, said entrepreneur Lawrence Bock.

“If we celebrate Lindsay Lohan, we generate a lot of Lindsay Lohan wannabes,” he told the AFRO. “We don’t celebrate science and engineering and that’s one of the root causes why we don’t generate a lot of scientists and engineers.”

Bock has taken one step to changing that culture with the first national USA Science and Engineering Festival, a two-week celebration that began on Oct. 10 with several events throughout the Washington, D.C. metro area and culminates Oct. 23-24 with an expo on the National Mall.

“Unless we reinvigorate the interest of our young people in the science and engineering we would have outsourced innovation and once you’ve done that the game is over,” he said of his reasoning.

The two-day extravaganza will feature an estimated 1,500 hands-on science and engineering activities and over 75 stage shows featuring science celebrities, actors, magicians, comedians, rap artists, cheerleaders, and other performing artists.

President Barack Obama lauded the event – which mirrors the intent of his “Educate to Innovate” initiative to increase student pursuit of STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) careers – during remarks at the White House Science Fair on Oct. 18.

“…This is the reason my administration has put such a focus on math and science education – because despite the importance of inspiring and educating our children in these fields, in recent years the fact is we’ve been outpaced by a lot of our competitors,” he said. “…It is unacceptable to me, and I know it’s unacceptable to you, for us to be ranked on average as 21st or 25th – not with so much at stake.”

Closer to home, at stake is the ability of U.S. companies to create American jobs and to retain talent.

“I spent most of my career as an entrepreneur creating hi-tech startups, and I could not recruit Americans to take these advance science positions—not because I didn’t want to, but because they weren’t going into these fields,” Bock said, then added, “Now, we have hit a perfect storm of events—Americans aren’t going into these fields, people from abroad are being educated here and we’re no longer retaining them because of various visa issues, but also because now the opportunities are greater abroad.”

The difficulty in cultivating future American scientists and engineers is especially acute among students of color. “African Americans and Hispanic students in particular are not exposed to science and engineering opportunities at the critical elementary and middle school age and that is the point where most kids decide if they’re going to pursue it later on,” Bock said. That’s why he made it a point to include organizations such as the National Society of Black Engineers and the National Association of Black Physicists, and Black professionals such as Aprille Ericsson, an aerospace engineer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, and ?Paul Gueye, an African physicist and professor at Hampton University’s Center for Advanced Medical Instrumentation.

“I’m still amazed by the small number of Blacks in this field— in the U.S. you can count the number of Black physicists on your hands,” Gueye told the AFRO. “ has sparked a strong desire to try to change that.”

Originally from Senegal, Gueye said his career in science—which includes developing lifesaving radiation therapy for cancer—was sparked by a voracious curiosity that was nurtured by the adults around him. Now, he wants to inspire that curiosity and self-belief in other Black children.

“I’ve always believe in reaching back to help the generation that is behind us and in being sure that generation knows what we know so they can progress further,” he said, then added, “Many students don’t know what’s out there, so that’s the connection that needs to happen.”

The CSTEM program—a robotics competition that introduces students to math, science and technology though a team project—has been one means of increasing that connection, said Jamese Shearin, regional coordinator for CSTEM and a teacher at Bladensburg High School, which is sending a contingent of African-American students to the expo to perform hands-on activities and share information related to the epidemiological origins of disease and health disparities such as diabetes, obesity and cardiovascular disease.

“If the minority students are in areas where funding is low and they can’t afford to do a lot of the things that the projects require them, we provide the materials to give them advancement,” she said.

In addition to cultivating team-building, the program also helps students to expand their range of possibilities.

“It gives them more insight as to more careers that exist,” she said. “It can be an eye-opener to all the other paths they can go down.”

For more information about the USA Science and Engineering Festival and a full list of activities and exhibitors, please visit, www.usasciencefestival.org.

 

Zenitha Prince

Special to the AFRO