What is the USA Science and Engineering Festival?

“We didn’t have anything like this when I was a kid!”
“This is awesome!”

I heard these three phrases repeated while attending the USA Science and Engineering Festival. What is the USA Science and Engineering Festival, you ask? This festival is knowledge for your child who has any interest in science. This festival is the condensed fun of discovery found in museums, zoos, summer camps and state fairs. This festival is a larger version of Disney’s INNOVENTIONS. This festival is your tax dollars at work. This festival is the future of innovation and engineering.

Watch this great video for a USA Science and Engineering Festival 2016 Recap (Credit: USA Science & Engineering Festival, @USAScienceFest)

The 5th USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF) was held in the Washington D.C. Convention center from April 5thto 8th, 2018. According to their website, “[Their] mission is to stimulate and sustain the interest of our nation’s youth in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) by producing and presenting the most compelling, exciting, and educational Festival in the world. The USA Science & Engineering Festival serves as an open forum to showcase all facets of STEM.”1 The USASEF is grassroots organized and consists of three parts:

  1. The STEM Career Fair had over 40 companies, targeted undergraduate (BA, BS) and graduate students (MA, PhD), and was free to attend on Friday April 6thwith advanced registration.
  2. The X-STEM symposium occurred all day Thursday April 5thwith interactive presentations and workshops by leaders in their fields. X-STEM has had a target audience of middle and high school students and requires advanced registration as early as January. (See the list of speakers here)
  3. The “Expo,” which is short for exposition, is exactly like show-and-tell, where an expert adult guides you through a scientific activity or demonstration. The Expo was free and open to the public all day Saturday, April 7thand Sunday, April 8th. An Expo preview was also available for school groups on Friday, April 6th. Scientists and engineers were representing companies like Lockheed (the Expo’s main sponsor), non-governmental organizations, military branches, schools, and government labs. The Expo was held in Halls A-E with over 3000 booths. (If you’re interested in seeing the immense scale of this event, Click here for a printable map of the convention center).

I volunteered at the Expo and had an awesome time! I encourage all adults, elementary-high school aged students, college students, and retirees (so really everyone) to attend this festival. You will not regret it, this is not your mama’s science fair. Let me explain why.

Let’s start with the American Chemical Society Booth, which is the booth I volunteered at.

Let me set the stage for you, imagine a 15-foot table with three minute activities set up to give quick demos of different scientific concepts. My favorite activity was called “Self-Inflating Balloons” and taught attendees about chemical changes. By mixing two common kitchen ingredients (citric acid and baking soda) a new product is formed – a gas. Can you guess which one?! This gas causes the balloon to inflate and was definitely a crowd pleaser! It should only be beginning to deflate now, about a month after the event. The education development team at ACS goes above and beyond to make their three minute activities educational and fun. I am truly impressed with the demos we did. If you are interested in trying out any of the demos or learning more, the teaching materials for this demo can be found here.

ACS American Chemical Society Miranda J Gallagher.JPG
Members of the American Chemical Society volunteer at the ACS booth to demonstrate Self-Inflating Balloons and answer burning chemistry questions at the table talk all while the ACS Reactions YouTube channel plays in the background.  (image credit: Miranda J. Gallagher)

The ACS booth was well set up because behind the 15-foot demo table there was a separate “low traffic area” that allowed for quiet conversation. The low traffic area was equipped with a table where kids could ‘draw a chemist’ and adults could casually talk with scientists. I enjoyed chatting with members of the public about what we chemists at the Center for Sustainable Nanotechnology are doing to make a more sustainable planet. I was especially happy to see so many women and girls at the Expo, particularly since cognitive scientist Sian Beilock recommends that parents offer children “relevant role models” in STEM because the more you identify with someone in a STEM field, the more likely you are to pursue joining a STEM field.2 It is important for 10-year-olds to have access to female scientists like myself, to ask their burning chemistry questions. With all these great activities, it is not an exaggeration to state that everyone walked away from the ACS booth having learned something. And this was just one small section of the festival!

NASA Girl Scouts Miranda J Gallagher.JPG
Evidence of promoting girls in STEM could be found sprinkled across the Expo. My American Girl® doll sported either a soccer uniform, a ballet costume, or a Girl Scout® uniform. Now there is a spacewalk suit option! (image credit: Miranda J. Gallagher)

We were located right next to the Einstein stage where a variety of stage shows combined drama and science. One of the performers was Kate Bieberdorf, Ph.D, a chemist who produced many explosions over her 40 minute show. Again, it was especially important that the women and girls in the audience could see someone who looks like them on stage explaining combustion reactions to a standing room only crowd. The explosions and cheers made it difficult to hear the voices asking me questions about nanotechnology and chemistry. Although the hydrogen balloon explosions were heart stopping, I wouldn’t change the rock star mentality of the Einstein stage performances. Growing up in the ‘90s, television provided me with three science role models, who are ridiculously stereotypical in hindsight: Bill Nye, the zany, repetitive engineer; Mr. Wizard, the tedious and greying retiree; and Ms. Frizzle, a frazzled single, female school teacher. None of them had standing room only stage shows like the Rolling Stones. Now young scientists have even more scientific role models to look up to!

I’ve only given you a small peek at some of the things that the Expo has to offer, but remember there’s also a Career Fair and X-STEM going on. For this much science to be packed into one place the location is super important. Large crowds can gather in D.C. at locations like the National Mall, where the first Expo was held, but it was found that reliable access to power, bathrooms and a rain-or-shine location was ideal for this type of event. Convention centers are handy spaces for this type of gathering; for example, the USASEF occupies all 2 million square feet of the DC Convention center1 (that’s a lot of science!). Convention centers, however, can be overwhelming. The four story hall is full of funky, loud noises and light shows. Hall D/E was occupied by ACS, NASA Space Camp, NOAA, biologists, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), geologists, Chevron, a Skype session with the European Laboratory for Particle Physics (CERN) and a very cool welding truck, but that wasn’t even all the festival had to offer!

USASEF Miranda J Gallagher
Hall A/B at the USA Engineering and Science Festival contained the military and military contractors, Department of Energy National Labs, the National Science Foundation. (image credit: Miranda J. Gallagher)

My next stop was in Hall A/B for a ‘Meet the Scientist’ session. Check out these photos of the Hall A/B. How did they even get a helicopter in here??? If your interest is to dash around in a mad swag grab (and who doesn’t love free stuff?!), at least you will leave the USA Science and Engineering Expo with swag branded with websites to look up later.

Lockheed vs Sikorsky Miranda J Gallagher.JPG
Which of these two rivals brought the better aircraft: Sikorsky with their helicopter or Lockheed with their blimp? (image credit: Miranda J. Gallagher)

Now is the time to plan your trip to USASEF for next year. The festival has only grown in popularity in the past seven years! For a richer experience, I recommend the following three things:

  1. Arrive early. The first hour was sparsely populated.
  2. Before going ask yourself and your kids “What are you most interested to see?” Is it Planets? Planes? or Physics? This way you can get a map on arrival and bee-line to the scientist you want to talk to. Bonus points for browsing the website together the night before and making a plan.
  3. Don’t be afraid to ask for the scientist’s business card. Any scientist who is volunteering is the type of person who will respond positively to your future inquiries. Maybe you are applying to college and want to know where the best chemistry programs are? Perhaps you are looking for someone to talk to your elementary school class about “Self-Inflating Balloons”? Ask for their card and send them a follow-up email after the festival is over.
UC Davis Entomology Miranda J Gallagher.JPG
My favorite booth of the day was the scientist from UC Davis Entomology with his eco-friendly polystyrene eating bugs. (image credit: Miranda J. Gallagher)

For the scientists out there who are asking, “Why should I participate in the USA Science and Engineering Festival?” Answer: Because the public is interested in what you have to say. This festival will occupy only 1/52 of your weekends next year and will be worth every second. The standard space is 10’ x 10’ with a table, 2 chairs and an electrical outlet (water and drainage, TV screens, and carpeting cost extra). $1250 for non-profit and $1750 for companies. To help you plan, this year’s deadline for Exhibitor applications was February 1st, 2018. Click here for the Exhibitor Resource page to help get you started. In the standard space a doctoral student can put up their most recent poster and bring some demo items. The Academic Departmental tables (e.g. Johns Hopkins Physics Department) used three adjoining standard booths. The scientific society booths (like the American Chemical Society and American Association for the Advancement of Science) were larger, requiring several volunteer shifts, which was nice because you could rotate off with other volunteers and take a break. The industry booths were as straightforward as ThermoFisher having laptops open to their free online SEM Simulator or as complex as Chevron’s STEM Zone, a multi-demo area the size of a basketball court.

All in all, it was a great opportunity for the public to talk to scientists and for scientists to talk to the public! I hope to see you there next year.



  1. Our Mission. ©2018 USASEF https://usasciencefestival.org/about/who-we-are/
  2. Beilock, S. Barnard’s president on how to develop STEM-confident girls at home. The Washington Post, September 5, 2017.