Festival of Science

About the author: Sarah Ulrich is a Ph.D. student in Geosciences at Virginia Tech. Find her on Twitter @sarainscience

Remember going to the science museum as a kid? There were dinosaur fossils, giant magnets, lasers, and light shows. And of course, some robots.

At the 3rd bi-annual USA Science and Engineering Festival held in Washington, D.C. April 24-26, 2014, there were robots:



… and robots …



… and underwater robots …

underwater robot


… and 3D printed robots…

3D printed robot


3D printer robot


… and flying robots … that played instruments …

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qlqe1DXnJKQ]

Now imagine a giant science museum, where everything is hands-on, and  not only is there one 3D printer, flight simulator, or planetarium, but nine of them!

The festival brought together over 700 exhibitors ranging from universities, non-profits, and government agencies and labs, to private aerospace, medical, computer, and even toy companies. According to the festival organizers, “More than 325,000 people celebrated science over 4 days!”

VTSuN SNO Sustainable Nano Group: James Dale, Sarah Ulrich, Vinka Craver, Hannah KIng
VTSun members (Sarah Ulrich, Hannah King, and James Dale), along with Dr. Vinka Oyanadel-Craver’s group from the University of Rhode Island (Dr. Craver, Colleen Grinham, Laura Schifman, and Varun Kasaraneni) at the US Science and Engineering Expo.


VTSun members (myself, Hannah King, and James Dale), along with  Dr. Vinka Oyanadel-Craver’s group from the University of Rhode Island (Dr. Craver, Colleen Grinham, Laura Schifman, and Varun Kasaraneni represented the Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (SNO). We held a booth that received thousands of children and their parents over two days. We taught kids about the properties of nanoparticles through hands-on activities with ferrofluids, electroplating demonstrations, and …. Play Dough!

What could Play Dough possible have to do with nanotechnology? Well it just so happens that Play Dough is the perfect tool for showing how surface area increases with decreasing size. Kids were given a block of “silver” to absorb “bacteria” (plastic beads) onto the surface. Once they had counted the bacteria they picked up, we turned the “silver” into “nano-silver” (which, as everyone knows, is bright yellow), and found that we could pick up even more bacteria.

After that, the kids played with a magnetic ferrofluid from the NISEnet NanoDays Kit, and learned how to detect a counterfeit dollar bill by using a magnet to attract the magnetite nanoparticles used in the ink.

Sustainable Nanotechnology Organization (SNO)



Those of us who ran the booth had fun, too. While touring the festival, we walked on water (oobleck), found out how tall we were in nanometers (I’m 1.73 billion), and turned into neutrons in the Oak Ridge National Lab portable synchrotron. Too often are we stuck at our computers, or in the lab, we run the risk of forgetting that science is oh-so-fun!  And in the end, that was the whole point – to get out, to get inspired, and to , “Dare I say it, change the world!”  Oh, did I mention Billy Nye was there?

US Science and Engineering Festival

About the author: Sarah Ulrich is a Ph.D. student in geosciences at Virginia Tech. Find her on Twitter @sarainscience

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