In global Science & Mathematics rankings, the United States education system is currently listed as 23rd & 30th, respectively. In fact, according to findings by PISA, only about half of today's students are even interested in learning Mathematics. The USA Science & Engineering Festival looks to reignite that desire for knowledge in the next generation.
At USASEF, Innovation isn't just an idea... it's a part of the mission statement. With the main goal of inspiring the next generation of STEM enthusiasts in a fun and engaging way, The USA Science & Engineering Festival is the country's only national science festival, and a flagship attempt to bring the youth of the United States back to the forefront of the Science and Engineering world. Through unique activations and experiential experiments, the USASEF hopes to spark an undying passion for learning in students, and help develop the Bill Nye's & Neil DeGrasse Tyson's of tomorrow.
I sat down with Marc Schulman, the Executive Director of the festival, to leverage my own experience with science challenges to discuss the USASEF, introducing students to Science & Engineering, and why he believes innovation should an integral part of all of our lives.
Name/Position/Company/Number Of Employees
Marc Schulman, Executive Director, USA Science & Engineering Festival, Staff: 10
What is USA Science & Engineering Festival?
The USA Science & Engineering Festival (USASEF) is the country's only national science festival, and was catalyzed by Science Spark, a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization, in collaboration with more than 1,000 of the nation's leading science and engineering organizations. In an era when the United States is losing ground as the world leader in STEM and fewer students than ever are pursuing careers in these fields, the Festival founders saw a crucial need to increase public awareness of the importance of science and to encourage youth to pursue careers in science and engineering by celebrating science in much the same way as we celebrate Hollywood celebrities, professional athletes and pop stars.
To stimulate national interest, knowledge, and appreciation of science and engineering through hands-on activities, theatre, comedy, music, art and film; to increase successful student access and entry to the STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics) career pipeline; and to demonstrate the importance of scientific discovery and engineering prowess to solving humankind's grand challenges.
What aspects of innovation do you use to inspire kids' interest in STEM?
The great strength of the festival is our ability to showcase over 1,000 organizations that create interactive exhibits utilizing their innovations to inspire our audience. We have found, whether innovative or not, that kids demonstrate amazing curiosity when they are allowed to interact with science and technology. The very act of "doing" may seem simple but is truly profound.
What are some of the creativity challenges K-12 students complete at the festival?
The types of activities at the festival run the gamut from high-tech to very low-tech. I have seen the simplest of activities generate huge interest in students. At the festival you may learn about DNA using marshmallows and toothpicks to build a double helix structure and then walk next door to try your hand at flying a next generation fighter jet in a real-world simulator. Both are equally entertaining and challenging to our audience.
How has innovation changed the way you do business?
My definition of innovation will be very different from other organizations. We deal with a select demographic and have a specific mission to inspire them. Our team is constantly pushing the boundaries on rebranding STEM and expanding the definitions of a STEM career. For example, last year we brought in Mike Rowe and his foundation mikeroweworks.org to assist us in telling the STEM side of the skilled trades story. If you think about skilled trades for a moment you come to realize that carpenters, plumbers, electricians and advanced manufacturing workers probably use STEM skills more than most professions. This expansion of the traditional STEM professions allows us to inspire kids to pursue math and science even though they may not wish to pursue an advanced degree.
When did you realize your path to success required you to innovate? What was your 'aha' moment?
I have been blessed in my career to work with some amazing people. In the late 90's, before the word "Innovation" became prevalent, my mentor at the Fiesta Bowl would famously challenge me to constantly "think outside the box". Although that phrase may be clich now, it was rare in the staunch world of college football to ask someone to draw outside the lines. The success of these unique opportunities born from those ideas was my 'aha' moment. Human nature tends to resist change or new ideas. I tend to embrace both.
What challenges and roadblocks did you face initially? How did you overcome them?
When you help lead an organization responsible for 325,000 people crossing your threshold in three days you need to understand the wants and needs of that audience. I had very little experience producing events for K-12 students and needed to adapt quickly to what works for someone 4' tall. Luckily our team is passionate about our mission and audience and we are able to talk through this challenge with educators, parents and exhibitors. Our organization is very open door when it comes to taking on criticism or praise and we react to both in a manner that best suits our mission.
What lessons do you have for young entrepreneurs and advocates for additional STEM initiatives?
Get involved! Do something! There are so many great organizations out there where you can mentor or be part of a team. Organizations like FIRST Robotics are fun, interactive and competitive ways to inspire your STEM side. There are many of those in your communities; you may just have to look a bit to find them.
What do you wish you knew when you were first starting that you know now?
One of my biggest personal lessons I wish I knew then that I take to heart now is to have fun at your own events. I have planned tailgates for thousands, rocket launch exhibitions, video game competitions and much more. When it is your JOB to produce those events you tend to lose sight on the simple fact that they are all really cool and you should take some time and enjoy the fruits of your labor.
What is the biggest hurdle every creator must tackle?
Status Quo. I can't stress enough for those wanting to truly create something amazing how many folks will try to knock you down or get in your way.
How important is an idea? Is it more important than the people behind it, or vice versa?
Ideas are incredibly important. Both good and bad ideas are the only way to learn what works and doesn't. Most ideas require a team to bring it to fruition. On the other hand, some ideas may not gain traction with your peers and require you to push forward alone. In the end, without people, no idea is born.
Is failure a myth, or does it really help you grow? When is failure actually bad?
Failure or even better the POTENTIAL to fail is the most destructive trait to innovation. I believe there must be thousands of great ideas on bookshelves somewhere that will never get their due because someone is afraid to fail. That is unfortunate. What is more unfortunate is that we tend to reward status quo or very small gains because of a fear of failure. As a society we need to better understand the ramifications of failure and harness the lessons born from it. The word failure seems so permanent; maybe that's why we fear it so.
What is your motivation?
I love the festival mission and the ability in real time to see on the faces of thousands how much they appreciate the work we do. I'm lucky to have that feedback.
What innovation do you want to see, both in your company, business and beyond?
I would really appreciate an innovation that can track our audience to prove that we have a true impact on what direction students take in their future. As of now that is mostly anecdotal.
How has change helped foster a better work culture, and improve peoples' lives?
Change is sometimes painfully better. Change is what allows people to learn to adapt and overcome situations and ultimately grow from that experience. For those adept and experiencing or influencing change it can be a wonderful experience. For those who don't, it can be crushing.
What's next for you?
We just finished the 2015 XSTEM Symposium and now we're focused on the 2016 USA Science & Engineering Festival! I'm sure between now and then some innovative idea will strike and we'll do that too.