A big first day at the USA Science & Engineering Festival

Posted by David Eicher
on Sunday, April 27, 2014

Our Celestron booth in the setup phase, early in the morning and before throngs of enthusiastic science geeks arrived on scene, April 26, 2014. // all photos by David J. Eicher
Well, there are festivals and then there are festivals. It was the first time for me to attend the USA Science & Engineering Festival, put on each year in Washington, D.C., and I was absolutely astounded at the first day and a half. I joined my friends at Celestron, the great manufacturer of telescopes, binoculars, and microscopes, at midday on Friday, April 25. And then I spent the entire day with them at the Celestron booth, which they kindly allowed me to occupy, along with numerous giveaway copies of Astronomy magazine, on Saturday, April 26. My thanks go out to Kevin Kawai, Jason Mulek, and Brenda Abrica of Celestron for being such great mates and for having me as a guest at the booth. I was utterly unprepared for what we experienced.

They say the total number of students and teachers coming through the Science & Engineering Festival over three days amounts to 100,000, and after Saturday, I don’t doubt it. There were throngs of people, and the day was exhausting — from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. we talked to hundreds of people, sometimes singly, sometimes in great crowds, washing past the Celestron booth in one of four gigantic rooms in the city’s Walter E. Washington Convention Center.

NASA’s huge area featured research results from the Kepler Space Telescope and many other missions, April 26, 2014.
We talked to people of every age, from young children with their parents to longtime amateur astronomers, most of whom were charged up about watching the Cosmos series on FOX and most of whom wanted to talk about astronomy, telescopes, Astronomy magazine, the meaning of the universe, observing and imaging objects, and what lies ahead for astronomy. It was very inspiring to see and talk with so many young people who are charged up about becoming an astronomer or physicist and who love observing the sky. Some of them asked me about Neil deGrasse Tyson or my friendship with Carl Sagan, and many asked to look at natural history samples with Celestron’s digital microscopes. At Celestron’s request, I brought along a number of mineralogical samples and showed those to kids and adults all day long.

The festival takes place in multiple places in the convention center, and we were placed close to many other astronomical attendees, including a gigantic display area of NASA’s, the National Radio Astronomy Observatory, the Large Hadron Collider, Oak Ridge National Laboratories, and others. Nearby speakers included the TV personalities Mike Rowe and Bill Nye the Science Guy, making a roar with the crowd every once in the while.

I’ll tell you what struck me the most after a day and a half of this festival. This is not the typical amateur astronomy meeting. Not the same folks who have been going to star parties year after year. This is a generally younger and newer crowd — the next generation of astronomy enthusiasts. It is a critical place for astronomers to be, reinforcing the interests of young, passionate people, forging a new wave of people who love learning about the universe.

Stay tuned — another day of the festival to come today!

For all images from this trip, visit the Online Reader Gallery.

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