SIAM News Blog

SIAM Engages Participants at the 2020 Virtual SciFest

By Wesley Hamilton and Padmanabhan Seshaiyer

The USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF) is a bi-annual exposition with booths, activities, and invited speakers for K-12 students, parents, teachers, and educators. For the last several years, the event has been held at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C., and has attracted over 250,000 visitors during its three-day run. SIAM has been participating in USASEF since it began a decade ago. The 2020 festival was initially scheduled to take place in person from April 24 to 26. But due to COVID-19, the event transitioned to an all-virtual format and commenced online from September 26 through October 31, 2020. Registration was free and STEM enthusiasts of all ages attended. The SIAM Education Committee assembled the SIAM booth. While we could not adapt all of our original plans to the online format, we were still able to construct an engaging experience for attendees.

We designed our virtual booth to educate visitors on the importance of mathematics. The booth incorporated multiple activities, such as a viewing of SIAM’s “I use math for…” video; a brief description of the society; and a demonstration and worksheet on internal waves, which was developed by the Joint Applied Mathematics and Marine Sciences Fluids Lab at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC). Padhu Seshaiyer, who has previously served as a “Nifty Fifty” speaker for USASEF, was a STEM Stage speaker this year and discussed the value of learning mathematics in a meaningful way.

The SIAM booth at the 2020 USA Science and Engineering Festival, which took place virtually from September 26 through October 31, 2020.

During prior festivals, the SIAM booth displayed exhibits of Archimedean solids and boasted activities like origami folding and shape sudoku. SIAM has worked with volunteer student chapters from schools that are both close to Washington, D.C. (such as George Washington University and George Mason University) and further away (such as UNC, North Carolina State University, Temple University, and Virginia Tech). For the would-be spring 2020 festival, we had planned to offer the same activities as before with some engaging new additions, including a Monty Hall problem demonstration with statistics gathered during the event itself, non-transitive dice and unusual probabilities, and tessellations. 

The planning committee met roughly once a month beginning in September 2019 and had all of the hands-on activities nearly complete by January 2020. While in theory we could have moved these activities online, we decided as a committee that the experience would not have been the same. Instead of rushing to preserve some of the excitement and engagement in the unprecedented online environment, we chose to save these plans for future in-person festivals. While we were not able to directly see the excitement and curiosity on attendees’ faces this year, SIAM’s virtual booth no doubt drove visitor interests toward applied mathematics.

Are you near Washington, D.C., and interested in helping to plan and volunteer at future SIAM festival appearances? Email Wesley Hamilton ([email protected]) and we’ll reach out whenever we begin planning for the next in-person festival!

Acknowledgments: Planning for SIAM’s booth at USASEF would not have been possible without the help of several key players. From the SIAM Education Committee, Wesley Hamilton (UNC) led the planning process while Katie Kavanagh (Clarkson University), who is also the SIAM Vice President for Education, marshalled resources and made connections. Richard Moore, SIAM’s Director of Programs and Services, helped coordinate SIAM resources and teleconferencing logistics, and marketing representative Kristin O’Neill managed the virtual booth and communicated with USASEF organizers. Finally, a number of volunteers, including Tracey Oellerich (George Mason University), Blain Patterson (Virginia Military Institute), and Grant Innerst (Shippensburg University), helped plan activities that—while not present at our virtual booth—will appear at the next in-person USASEF and other festivals in which SIAM participates.

Wesley Hamilton is a Ph.D. candidate in mathematics and president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill SIAM Student Chapter. He helped to plan and coordinate the 2020 USA Science and Engineering Festival (USASEF). Padmanabhan (Padhu) Seshaiyer is a professor of mathematical sciences and the associate dean for the College of Science at George Mason University, as well as chair of the SIAM Diversity Advisory Committee. He served as a STEM Stage speaker at the 2020 virtual USASEF.

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