ASBMB at the USA Science & Engineering Festival

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When you think of a skeleton, most of your thoughts are likely related to things like death, or Halloween. Very little thought probably goes into the actual composition of the bones that make up the skeleton’s rickety frame. But far from being a static object, the skeleton’s orderly collection of bones is actually a dynamic system of cells, proteins and chemicals that is in a constant state of growth and repair.

The ASBMB “Bone: It’s Alive!” booth at the USA Science & Engineering festival

Looking to showcase the living biochemistry of bone, the ASBMB presented “Bone: It’s Alive” as an exhibit demo during the third USA Science and Engineering Festival, which took place April 15-17 in Washington D.C. Run by ASBMB staff and local members, the ASBMB booth welcomed thousands of visitors, who got a chance to learn about the process of bone growth, and even make their own bone from the basic chemical ingredients (calcium chloride and sodium phosphate). However, the true star of our booth was our beloved skeleton, Oscar, who posed for selfies as graciously as a Kardashian.

Selfies with our skeleton Oscar were a big hit

The ASBMB was one of thousands of organizations presenting at the three day festival. Groups came from across the country to showcase all sorts of science: robotics, 3-D printers, plants, glowing fruit flies, live penguins, and even a couple of fighter jets from festival main sponsor Lockheed Martin. The festival also featured live stage shows that featured explosions, bubbles and lasers, along with performances from They Might Be Giants (whose volume overpowered the entire convention center).

While the visibility of the current version of the USA Science & Engineering festival pales in comparison to the initial version (which was held outside on the National Mall in 2010), this year’s festival amazingly still drew over 365,000 attendees inside the Walter E. Washington Convention center over the course of three beautiful spring days. Attendees even lined up outside of the festival before each day’s opening. Says something about the draw of science. Or maybe they all just wanted a picture with Oscar.

A step-by-step instruction guide to the “Bone: It’s Alive!” demo can be found here.

Join ASBMB at the USA Science & Engineering Festival

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Held every other year, the USA Science and Engineering Festival is the one of the largest (if not THE largest) science outreach happening in the country. Over 300,000 attendees, from kids to parents to teachers, are expected to attend this year’s event, held April 16-17 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington D.C.

USA SEF logo

The three day festival features an overwhelming array of activities, including dynamic stage shows from NASA and the Mythbusters, meet and greets with science celebrities such as Bill Nye and Peter Agre, and, this year, a STEM-based musical performance from They Might Be Giants. But the festival’s centerpiece is the staggering array of hands-on exhibits, presented by over 1000 different groups and organizations. In the past, these have included robotics demonstrations, 3D printers, and even a full jet fighter!

BoneThe ASBMB will join in on the fun this year with “Bone: It’s Alive!”, our exhibit that explores the biochemistry of bone. Designed by the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee, the exhibit is a hands-on demonstration of the roles biology and chemistry play in the development of our bones.

Never been to a science festival before? This is a great chance to experience what outreach is all about. Who knows, you might just get hooked! If you are really interested in getting involved, we are looking for volunteers to help staff our booth during the weekend. Please contact outreach@asbmb.org if you want to help out. It doesn’t matter if you are a student or faculty, we want you to be involved!

See you in DC!

ASBMB UAN Chapters Awarded Funds to do Outreach

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To paraphrase, former Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill, all outreach is local. In that vein, the ASBMB Public Outreach Committee has undertaken a number of initiatives to promote and organize science outreach activities in local communities across the country.

The most recent venture was a novel partnership with the ASBMB Undergraduate Affiliates Network, a chapter-based consortium of over 90 institutions. Participation in science outreach is a requirement for individual UAN chapters, so the partnership was a natural fit. But to really spice the pot, the Public Outreach Committee worked with the UAN to develop a grant program that would allow individual chapters to apply for up to $500 to facilitate student participation in outreach activities.

Ultimately, chapters at seven schools were approved for funding this year. Some are continuing programming that they have been part of previously, while some are starting programs anew:

  • HENDRIX COLLEGE: Will bring student presentations and biology tutoring sessions to underserved students at Wonderview High School.
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF TAMPA: Will conduct molecular biology experiments alongside students from Tampa Preparatory High School. (Chapter link)
  • THE UNIVERSITY OF SAN DIEGO: Will use amino acid builder kits to teach fundamental concepts in biochemistry to local middle school students from underserved communities.

While this program is only one part of a broader effort to involve ASBMB members in science outreach, the dedication and passion of our undergraduate members are encouraging indicators for success. Even better, participation in these activities will instill an interest in outreach that will (hopefully) endure throughout their careers, wherever they end up.

Read more about the program here.

Making the Windy City a Little More Windy

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The annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science is a hodgepodge of talks, presentations and workshops from across the scientific spectrum. In recent years, the theme of science communication has featured prominently throughout the meeting. This year’s version, held last month in a frigid Chicago, continued that trend.

The meeting kicked off with the annual International Public Science Events Conference (IPSEC), attended by outreach and public science professionals from across the globe. With an overall theme of incorporating science into popular culture, IPSEC 2014 featured several sessions focused on strategies for going beyond standard outreach activities to reach non-traditional audiences. A wonderful example was presented by Mark SubbaRao from the Adler Planetarium, who worked to have astronomy images displayed in various public spaces around the greater Chicago region, including in subway trains, at O’Hare airport, and even in local penitentiaries (he is still awaiting feedback from the Blues Brothers). Examples of other novel outreach approaches abounded, from the collaborative Discover, Explore and Enjoy Physics and Engineering (DEEP) program at Texas A&M University to the hipster gathering that is Nerd Nite.

Once the AAAS meeting began in full, an entire session track dedicated to communication fit alongside scientific themes like Physics and Astronomy. One of the more notable sessions, sponsored by COMPASS, featured a wide range of stakeholders discussing different approaches to incorporate science communication into student training programs, continuing the discussion that was begun at the initial #GradSciComm meeting held last December. Officials from both the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy and National Science Foundation outlined actions being taken by the federal government, such as novel funding opportunities and prescriptive programmatic recommendations, while university-based speakers Karen Klomparens (Michigan State University Graduate School) and Rachel Mitchell (University of Washington- ENGAGE) talked about their experiences with science communication training programs at their individual institutions.

A crowd favorite was a session, hosted by the Center for Communicating Science at SUNY-Stonybrook, focusing on the use of improvisation tools to facilitate communication. An overflow crowd of more than 100 attendees swarmed into the session room to take part in various exercises, such as silently working with a partner to carry an invisible sheet of glass around the room (without breaking it!), that demonstrated the critical non-verbal aspects of communication.

For science communicators (at least of a certain age), the unquestioned highlight of the meeting was Alan Alda giving his plenary lecture “Getting Beyond a Blind Date with Science” to a packed room of meeting attendees. Alda spoke of the need for scientists to engage with the general public, describing his (often-times frustrating) interactions with scientists while hosting Scientific American Frontiers, as well as his personal classroom experiences that served as inspiration for the creation of the Flame Challenge.

The theme of public interaction extended beyond the session rooms, with several different public science events taking place that gave meeting attendees a chance to put their communication skills to use through science-based interactions with people from the local community.

Chicago families check out the American Society of Plant Biology booth during Family Science Days at AAAS2014.

Children and parents crowded into Family Science Day to learn about meiosis using poker chips, use a 3D printer to make miniature self-models, and help generate indoor tornadoes. Other public facing communication events included a science café on dark matter, hosted at the Adler Planetarium, and a live filming of StoryCollider, a science podcast/storytelling platform.

As science communication becomes ever more integrated as part of the scientific process, these types of activities and sessions will feature regularly at scientific meetings and conferences. ASBMB will feature its own platter of events at the 2014 Experimental Biology meeting next month, including a science communication workshop and a public science cafe (check out our full lineup under the “Public Policy and Science Outreach” header: http://www.asbmb.org/Meetings_01/2014mtg/2014AnnlMtgProgInfo.aspx). So the next time you go to a meeting, try to see what you can do to communicate your science without using a poster board or PowerPoint presentation. You might be amazed at what is out there.