Thousands converged upon Washington, DC, this past weekend for the fourth USA Science & Engineering Festival. The Festival is regarded as the largest STEM education event in the country, with family-friendly demonstrations and talks. They focus on guiding young people with interests in the career fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). In addition to educators and professional associations, well-known scientists and even entertainers offer their insights on these exciting opportunities.
Actor and blogger Wil Wheaton (Star Trek: The Next Generation; Big Bang Theory) was one of the celebrity guests at hand for the festivities this year. On Sunday morning, he introduced the winners of the Generation Nano Awards on behalf of the National Science Foundation and the National Nanotechnology Initiative. The competition required high school students to imagine their own superheroes with powers emerging out of nanotechnology. With the angle on comic books and visual design, it was fitting that legendary comic-book writer Stan Lee joined Wil Wheaton (virtually) to extend his congratulatory sentiments to the winners.
Wheaton returned to the stage in the afternoon, speaking about his longtime interests in tinkering, gaming, and science fiction. At the beginning of this article, I mentioned the USA Science & Engineering Festival’s concentration on STEM. I was relieved when Wheaton emphasized the arts and the acronym STEAM (STEM plus Art) in his lecture.
“There are young people in America and around the world who are watching Doctor Who and Star Trek and Mr. Robot. They are discovering that they have an interest in STEM education because they are inspired by art,” he said. Wheaton added later that art should “not [be] an alternative or competitor to STEM education.”
He also identified a few challenges in the way of cultivating strong educational programs: funding, inequality, and other restrictions on access. All of these conditions in some way signify a resounding “no” to a child, which is the “worst thing” to say to him or her. It discourages children in their desires to explore and tinker with the tools in the world around them.
As for the younger people, Wheaton exhorted them to bravely tackle the messy problems that the current generation will be leaving behind. Staying the course on learning, working hard, and asking many questions are vital strategies to making a better world.
“Take things apart and make new things out of them,” he urged. “And don’t ever let anyone tell you that you can’t do something because it’s hard! A lot of things that we think are easy were too hard until a clever, brave person said, ‘Okay, I’m going to do it anyway.’”