Record-shattering attendance at Science on State Street

Senior Alex Hiller sawed open batteries for the “Build a Battery” table. Corey McFeeley / THE GATEPOST

Approximately 1,000 people attended the Christa McAuliffe Center’s fourth annual “Science on State Street” festival on April 21, according to Irene Porro, center director.

Attendance was tracked using Science on State Street buttons that were handed out to attendees. Porro said they printed 1,100 buttons and although many adults did not take buttons, there were only 78 left after the event.

She added, “That confirms that at least 1,000 people were in attendance. This is an all-time record for the festival. The largest audience we had in the past was about 500 people.”

The yearly event is intended to be a day of science exploration for the whole family. This year, it featured over forty table exhibits and demonstrations, free planetarium shows in the McAuliffe Center, “STEM on Stage” presentations and a keynote presentation about Mars exploration by John Grant of the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum.

The event was sponsored by a variety of organizations, including FSU, MathWorks, MetroWest STEM Education Network and Avidia Bank.

The display tables were set up throughout Crocker Grove and in the parking lot behind O’Connor Hall. There was a wide range of presenters, from FSU students and professors to outside organizations such as the Massachusetts National Guard and NOVA.

Students in the Food Science Club

demonstrated the difference between dough made with gluten and dough made without gluten.

They offered different types of dough, and attendees were able to feel the dough and see the difference in elasticity. After, people were allowed to take samples of gluten and gluten-free cookies.

Senior and Food Science Club Treasurer Ben Montemurro said, “It’s been going great! Everyone’s been having a lot of fun playing with the dough and they like the fact that they can touch it. It’s interactive.”

The Wildlife Club set up a “Find Your Wild Side” table where it displayed taxidermy animals native to Massachusetts, including a beaver, an opossum and a coyote. There were examples of animal tracks that kids and adults alike could try to identify.

Wildlife Club member and senior Julia Barrone said kids really enjoyed touching the taxidermy animals and parents were often excited to see the animals up close for the first time.

Chemistry professor Dwayne Bell and senior chemistry major Alex Hiller ran a “Build a Battery” experiment that let kids get their hands dirty. After explaining the process behind what makes a battery work, Hiller used a hacksaw to cut a battery in two and then let audience members help him break it apart with their hands and pliers to reveal what was inside.

Bell then showed the audience how to reconstruct the battery using a terracotta pot soaked in salt water, graphite from a carpenter’s pencil, dirt and a galvanized bucket with water and salt in it.

Nearby, the biology department created a plant science display and botany trivia game. Biology professor Bryan Connolly said biology major Jillian Rizzitano really made it a success. People “seemed to really like it! Many people admired our tomato plants,” he added.

Connolly said Science on State Street is “a great way to educate the public about science. Additionally, it’s a great way for FSU to interact with the community.”

On the walkway in front of Peirce Hall, Spc. Luis Diaz and Spc. Richard Watson from the Massachusetts National Guard let people run a “search-and-rescue mission” to retrieve a package along a ramp using a remote-controlled robot.

Diaz said, “It was nice to see all the kids coming out. They’re really interested in learning.”

He added, “The staff here was friendly and supportive. It was nice and I enjoyed it.” 

NOVA, Microsoft and Dow Chemical shared the space outside Hemenway Laboratories. Kids scrambled for virtual reality headsets at the NOVA station in order to view “360°: Why is Greenland Melting?” and learned about speed and friction with Hot Wheels cars at the Microsoft table.

Dow’s “Stem Ambassadors” used nature paper to teach about solubility and explain the company’s lithographic process. Improvement Engineer Lauren Miller said, “We’re just trying to explain solubility to kids because it’s one of the important chemical properties in what we make and what we sell.”

At noon, geologist John Grant spoke in the Dwight Performing Arts Center. His keynote presentation, “Exploring Mars’ Past: The epic journey of the Spirit, Opportunity, and Curiosity Rovers,” was directly informed by his work with the Mars rover missions.

As the science operations working group chair for the Spirit and Opportunity rovers, Grant leads “day-to-day science planning of the rovers,” according to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum website. He is also a “long-term planner” for the Curiosity rover, where he helps create strategic goals for the mission.

Grant opened his presentation by asking, “Is there life on Mars?”

He continued, “We don’t know if there ever was or is, but we’re getting there.”

Grant explained the research being conducted into the presence of water on the surface of Mars and the paths the different rovers took and the data they found. Following the presentation, the floor was opened up for questions from the audience.

Porro said more than 215 people came to the talk.

Greg Hopkins, a Natick resident, attended the presentation. He said it was “very enlightening and pretty deep.”

Ewa Hopkins, also a Natick resident, brought her son Leo along to Science on State Street and called the festival “fantastic.”

She added, “It’s amazing how many activities people can do. It’s opening horizons for kids. … It’s educational for all of us.”

There was also a series of STEM on Stage presentations covering a variety of topics, including the sessions “Challenges of Developing Foods for Military and Space Feeding” and “Bio-Inspired: Unexpected Innovations from the Book of Nature.”

John Thompson, who helped operate a table about free, open-source software with NatickFOSS, said his grandchildren, ages 7 and 12, both came to the festival and loved everything.

Algot Runeman, also with NatickFOSS, said, “We got a chance to talk to a bunch of people. We got to smile a lot. And it was a great day – couldn’t have planned it better.”

Runeman showed off a plastic penguin named Tux, the mascot of Linux software. He 3-D printed it using open-source software.

While waiting in the parking lot behind O’Connor Hall for the planetarium shows, people could look through a giant kaleidoscope and learn about the effects of acids on tooth enamel. Inside O’Connor Hall, an engineering student displayed a 3-D printer and families could see a model of the Opportunity rover up close. 

Alex Ludwig and his son Lucas went to Grant’s keynote address and saw the 3-D printer in action. Lucas said he wanted to come to Science on State Street “because I wanted to go to the planetarium.”

Ludwig said, “We love it. We would definitely come back. It’s been very cool.”

Ashley Hebert, who graduated from FSU in 2010, brought her three young children to the event. She said she’s brought her kids every year since Science on State Street began.

She added, “It’s a lot of fun to come back and visit and see all the hands-on experiments. It’s a lot of stuff we don’t get to see at home, too. They love the chemistry table where they shatter the flowers. That’s a favorite. And the planetarium shows, too.”

Hebert was referring to the Chemistry Club’s popular liquid nitrogen experiment, in which members dip a rose in the substance then shatter it against the table.

Porro said she was “pleased” with the event because there was such a variety of presentations and so many people attended.

“Many participants and exhibitors told us they enjoyed the festival and asked to do it again next year. So, yes, we are already planning for next year’s Science on State Street,” she said. 

Porro added, “We would love to have many more FSU students volunteer for the festival in 2019. It is not just to be part of a cool science event – it is much more. It is all about building community.”