Thursday, October 7, 2010

Event Spotlight: Larry Bock, Executive Director, USA Science & Engineering Festival

Larry Bock
Each year, the San Diego Science Festival plays host to hundreds of thousands of people who participate in engaging, hands-on science activities across town, concluding with a free, two-day Expo held downtown.
Planned as the West Coast’s largest science event, the festival has attracted corporate and individual donors dedicated to encouraging the nation’s youth to pursue careers focused in science, research and mathematics.
This year, following a successful San Diego event in the spring, USA Science & Engineering Festival Executive Director Larry Bock was inspired to bring the fun to our nation’s capital during October. Bock, who was the inspiration behind the popular San Diego festival, is a successful serial entrepreneur who has founded, co-founded or financed the early stage growth of 40 companies in the life and physical sciences from inception to achieving an aggregate market capitalization in excess of $30 billion.

Q: I understand this event is geared toward reinvigorating the interest of Americans in the sciences. Explain the root of the issue and how it might be reversed?

A: There is a perfect storm of events going on. Americans are not pursuing advanced science positions, and, because of H1B visa issues, we are not retaining foreigners who are trained in the area. Right now, something like 80 percent of people being trained with advanced degrees in the sciences in the United States are from abroad.
Also, the opportunities are now greater abroad. So, even if we did try to retain them, they are more motivated to go back. We have to reinvigorate the interest of Americans in science and math. And why aren’t Americans interested in it? Our premise is our society gets what it celebrates. We celebrate Lindsay Lohan and Britney Spears and we generate a lot of them. But we don’t celebrate science and engineering. We need to celebrate the rock stars of science, such as computer scientists Larry Page and Sergey Brin who founded Google.

Q: Do you envision a day where we’re celebrating scientists as celebrities?

A: That’s our goal. We try to do that by having a festival where it’s a pinnacle moment for society to come together to celebrate science and engineering, art, music, film and comedy. What the festival’s organizers are trying to do is bring scientists into schools to show them that scientists really are rock stars.
This year, we’ll bring 25 Nobel Laureates into schools to have brown bag lunches with students. We also have 100 scientists to go in and really get kids excited about what scientists do.

Q: How does this event tie into classroom-based teaching?

A: Basically, we try to get these scientists to come into the schools for a presentation but then form a long-term relationship with the schools. We’re bringing in scientists like National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins, AIDS researcher Tony Fauci and Paul Anastas, the “father of green chemistry” at the Environmental Protection Agency.
Science and engineering professionals will fan out across the D.C. area in October to speak about their careers at various middle and high schools.

Q: How did the San Diego Science Festival help you prepare for this year’s event in D.C.?

A: I wasn’t planning on doing it in D.C., but one of my sponsors in San Diego, Lockheed Martin, encouraged me to do it on a national scale and they gave us a huge sponsorship to do that. They said, “What would it take to make it a national event?” With the generous help of our corporate sponsors, we have raised over $2 million, along with $2.5 million in media partnerships in under a year.
In Washington, we have organizations from all over participating. We have probably over 750 organizations participating. We have approximately 150 universities. We have well over 100 professional science and engineering societies. We have about 100 government agencies and federal labs, all of which are based in Washington.

Other community-based organizations, such as Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts and Project Lead the Way, are also participating on the premise of giving back to the community with the added bonus of learning something about science.

Q: Give me a few of the event’s highlights.

A: We have exciting guests like the MythBusters (Discovery Channel), Bill Nye the Science Guy, Storm Chasers (Discovery Channel), the inventor of the Rubik’s Cube. Then, we have the sciences of pretty much anything you can imagine, including the physics of NASCAR, the chemistry of Thanksgiving dinner, the science of Harry Potter. Through the generous contribution of time, energy and resources of our participating organizations, we are also able to offer sophisticated exhibits like virtual reality environments, surgical robots and fighter jet simulators.

Q: Give me an idea of what’s involved in the science of Harry Potter.

A: It’s actually looking at the real science behind the magic of Harry Potter. There is real science now to do cloaking, which is what Harry does when he puts on the invisible cape.

Q: How did you first get involved in this event?

A: I was taking a year abroad in Europe for fun when I saw the science festivals there. In Europe they’ve been going on for years, taking place all over England, the United Kingdom, Italy, Germany. The one in India draws 1 million people to it. That was my impetus to do the inaugural San Diego Science Festival. I loved the month of activity, but, for me, the really “aha” moment was when Balboa Park was completely filled. In the Spring of 2009, the inaugural San Diego Science Festival drew 200,000 people to participate in more than 500 free activities.

Q: What will be unique about this year’s event?

A: We’re on the National Mall, from the U.S. Capitol Building to 7th street. And then we’ve closed down Pennsylvania Avenue between 12th and 14th Streets. I think we have one of the largest footprints of any expo in Washington separate from the inauguration.

Q: How many people do you anticipate will attend the event?

A: Well, of course it’s weather dependent. My goal would be for a quarter of a million people each day during the Expo Days, held Oct. 23 and 24. Our goal is also to have a million people nationwide involved in this celebration, between what we’re doing and all the satellite events going on nationwide.

Q: At the end of the day, what do you hope to achieve?

A: My dream for this event is that it will have been considered the “Woodstock of science.” Hopefully, with less rain.

Click here to find out all the details of this year’s event already underway in Washington, D.C.

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