Downtown Roanoke's pedestrian bridge over Norfolk Southern's railroad tracks loomed in the background as Joe Wartenby talked about the Virginia Tech Steel Bridge Design Team's work on a smaller structure.
Families attending the Virginia Science Festival in Roanoke,Virginia, watched and explored the team's bridge as Wartenby, a senior majoring in civil engineering, described the American Society of Civil Engineers' bridge competition: how the bridge must fit into a small box with no pieces sticking out, how the team has a limited time for setup, and how the structure is tested and points are awarded.
Nearby, other Virginia Tech student teams showcased an off-road Baja vehicle, a human-powered submarine, and a formula-style racecar. And that was just a small fraction of what was available to see on the closing day of the inaugural Virginia Science Festival.
"That's a big part of what the science festival is about: taking what people are doing and bringing it to a space where kids can enjoy it, the general public can enjoy it," said Phyllis Newbill, studio associate for outreach and engagement at Virginia Tech's Institute for Creativity, Arts, and Technology (ICAT).
With events across Virginia, the festival played out Oct. 4-11, bookended by jam-packed Saturdays in Blacksburg and in downtown Roanoke. From the coalfields to the coast, from Northern Virginia to Southside, a total of 16 sites hosted events that ranged across the scientific spectrum, with a particular focus on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education.
The festival originated when Science Museum of Western Virginia officials brainstormed ways to bring their educational mission into the community while College of Science Dean Lay Nam Chang and Communications Director Rosaire Bushey sought ways to mark the college's 10th anniversary. Based on Bushey's proposal for a science fair, the college and the museum joined forces. Provost Mark McNamee and his staff, particularly Susan Short, associate vice president for engagement, worked with Jim Rollings and Michael Hemphill, respectively the museum's executive director and director of marketing and development, to further develop the idea and then secure a $10,000 grant from the Science Festival Alliance.
The idea picked up steam quickly and blossomed into a statewide event once U.S. Sen. Mark Warner got wind of it. Warner and fellow U.S. Sen. Tim Kaine agreed to serve as co-chairs of the festival, and sites around Virginia began to develop programming.
"To see [the festival] go from local to statewide the first year out of the box is a real source of pride for me," said Rollings.
Virginia Tech's Continuing and Professional Education, School of Education, and ICAT worked together to spearhead the university's contributions to the festival. "A big piece of the ICAT mission is educational innovation—finding ways to think about K-12 education and to think about more informal education," Newbill said. "The science festival comes as part of that mission."
Scheduled during Fall Family Weekend, the campus festival day included more than 100 exhibits and speakers, showcasing Virginia Tech's world-class faculty, students, and programs.
"What a great opportunity for family members to learn about what kinds of thought leaders are at Virginia Tech," said Short.
Various branches of the U.S. Armed Forces brought pieces of heavy equipment that proved to be kid magnets. NASA Langley Research Center and WDBJ7's Weather Fest, which were major attractions, appeared at both the Blacksburg and the Roanoke events. Likewise, the Tuxedo Pandas, a group of STEM-focused 7th- through 10th-graders in Montgomery County, drew attention with their robots, panda hats, and tuxedo T-shirts.
In Southwest Virginia, the Bristol Motor Speedway hosted more than 40 teachers for a workshop about engaging students in science through stock cars, with discussions on vehicle safety, engineering, helmet research, and racing physics.
Closer to the coast, the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences in Gloucester Point, Virginia, staged several events during the week of the festival, including a moonlight beach walk and undersea crafts.
In Richmond, Virginia, scientists helped students steer digital mice through a maze to put a ball in a hoop—an exhibit known as rat basketball.
About 5,000 people attended the Blacksburg festival day, another 5,000 attended the Roanoke events, and an additional 5,000 people came to campus for Hokie BugFest on the Roanoke festival day.