Last week, hundreds of thousands of people attended a series of events in Washington focusing on science and science related fields. These events included a White House Forum on Women and Girls in STEM, a pair of health policy forums, and a science and technology festival.

The largest of the events was the science fest, officially dubbed—the Second USA Science & Engineering Festival. Founded by Silicon Valley entrepreneur and venture capitalist, Larry Bock, the fest drew an estimated crowd of over 300,000 to the Walter Washington Convention Center in DC.

How did Bock and just two other full-time staff manage this feat?

In the weeks prior to the festival events at the convention center, Bock and his small army coordinated hundreds of presentations by Nobel laureates and others in schools around the region.

The goal was to excite students, particularly those in low and medium income neighborhoods, about science and the festival by giving them a preview of what they could expect at the convention center events. This investment by Bock and his team paid off.

Attendees for the weekend Science Festival events were given their fill of fun activities geared for children and adults alike. Over 500 of the nation’s top science universities, organizations, and corporations participated in the festival, occupying the entire lower level of Washington Convention Center.

“It was impossible to see it all” said Antoinette Barksdale, who attended the festival with her daughter and a classmate, ages 8. Barksdale, a government civil rights attorney, and her crew were met by a mix of life science, aerospace, and robotic displays, games and experiments ranging from powerful microscopes aboard wind-powered school buses; to robots like R2D2, the Star Wars droid; to real-life jet and space crafts. “We spent three hours at the festival and were only able to see 25 percent of it. Even if I had all day, I could not have gotten it all in. You needed two days,” said Barksdale.

The US Science & Engineering Festival began as a regional science festival in San Diego, CA near Silicon Valley. According to Bock, one of his sponsors, Lockheed Martin, challenged him to take the event national by hosting it in DC. In response, “I said that Washington was not a science city, not like San Diego, boy was I wrong. In San Diego we had three universities participating, here in Washington, we had 150 universities,” Bock reflects.

“We did the first event on national mall, and this was the second. The national mall was the fantastic place to have it but it was very weather dependent. We were holding our breath to see whether people would come to the Convention Center for an event like this. We doubled what we did in San Diego,” Bock notes.

In terms of cost, Bock admits that he and his wife have been among the largest donors of festivals. “I contributed $150,000 and we raised $600,000 ,” to pull off the San Diego festival, he said. For this year’s festival, which took a year to organize, the budget was $2.25 million plus $1.5 million in donated media support.

Bock’s commitment to inspiring people in the US about science and technology is a product of his own success. “I started out as a bright kid who didn’t make it into medical school,” says Brock. So, out of college, Brock went to work for an early pioneer in bio tech, Genentech, and saw it grow from 50 to hundreds in just three years. After cashing out of that firm, Bock spent 25 years building 30 companies worth $40 billion.

Once Bock recalls, he recruited a young engineer to his firm from China. After a few years, the company did well, and the engineer made $1 million in stock. Ultimately, the engineer left Bock’s company, went back home to China and opened a firm developing the same products as Bock; now he has 4000 employees.

“That’s when I knew he had to spread the word about science and technology to Americans,” Bock shares.

“You get what you celebrate. We celebrate pop stars and athletes and we generate a lot of people who want to be them,” adds Bock.

While African Americans are not generally known as science buffs, the majority of those attending the Science festival were people of color. Free admission to the festival was a big factor in attracting people who would not ordinarily attend science and tech events believes Bock (similar events typically cost $25-$100 per person).

The diversity of attendees gives Bock reason to believe that science and technology may lead to a cure for a disease, which some believe is contagious—racism.

At the White House STEM event, Facebook’s Director of Engineering, Jocelyn Goldfein acknowledged the power of technology in the fight against racism as evidenced in the Trayvon Martin story. “This is one of the things that’s humbling about being at Facebook…it’s a tool…and people of great courage, bravery, and integrity have spoken out and used this tool,” said Goldfein.

 

Talib I. Karim

Special to the AFRO