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Exploring the Science of Sports

By Abbey Becker

USA Science and Engineering Festival

Professor Nate Harshman giving a demonstration at a previous USA Science and Engineering Festival

While many visitors descend on D.C. in April to see the cherry blossoms, it will likely be for a different reason on April 26 and 27. The USA Science and Engineering Festival will take over the Walter E. Washington Convention Center for a weekend of science, engineering, technology, and math-inspired exhibits, workshops, and hands-on activities aimed at people of all ages. American University will run a booth for the third time this year, with a “Science of Sports” theme. Past years’ themes included the “Physics of Music” and “Science in the Kitchen.” 

The effort this year is supported by the departments of biology, chemistry, public health, physics and athletics. Various faculty, staff, and students contribute to the preparation of AU’s exhibit, and students will staff the booth at the event. “We’re committed to STEM outreach, and the best way to get strong science students at AU is through this kind of event,” says physics professor Nate Harshman, who led the event the past two years. “It’s something that responsible and future-minded scientists should do. It creates a more scientifically literate population.” 

The AU booth will showcase the collaboration between the departments toward science-based sports demonstrations. Public health is bringing Jell-O molds in the shape of small brains that can be used to observe what types of materials best protect this vital organ. Booth visitors can clip on fingertip pulse monitors brought by the Biology Department to measure their pulse and level of oxygen in their blood before and after they run in place for a few seconds. AU will also provide Styrofoam heads with acceleration sensors to illustrate how concussions can be prevented with helmets. 

This year, Nancy Zeller, director of the biology teaching labs at AU, is leading the university’s participation, with help from Harshman. She was involved in the planning for one of the festivals two years ago. “We calculated that about 1,500 people came by our booth. That means 1,500 people were excited about American University science,” she says. “It was a great way to advertise that science is a very important part of AU.” 

But attending the festival isn’t just about getting the AU science word out; it’s an opportunity for AU students to have a hand in promoting science education. “A lot of our students feel that STEM outreach is really important,” says Harshman. “And the students have a really good time. It’s fun to see them work to communicate complex information to a lay audience. These young kids see them as ‘big kids,’ so it’s funny to see the kids’ eyes light up and the students’ eyes light up.” 

Faculty members encourage students to be part of the festival to strengthen the AU science family’s unity. “We want students to know that they’re an integral part of this community. We’re trying to offer as many opportunities as possible for students to get involved,” says Zeller. “Our students are great teachers and talented scientists.” 

If students are planning to attend graduate school, volunteering at the festival can help them show they have a continuing interest in the dissemination of science information. “Graduate schools want to see that students are committed to the broader endeavors of science,” says Harshman. “Outreach demonstrates that they’re committed to broader impacts and that they embody the ethical standard of scientists.” 

The hands-on methods that AU brings to the festival helps students connect with the event’s attendees, particularly in an increasingly tech-driven world. “It can seem like our technology really is like magic, and that’s something we want to avoid,” says Harshman. “We want them, even if they don’t become scientists, to realize that people do these things. We want them to know that science, engineering, and math are fun and are great ways to be curious as a job.”