Turning Wellesley into STEM central

science & technology expoThe Wellesley Science  & Technology Expo team, which will turn Wellesley High into a science museum on April 5, is off to a strong start. The team went over its game plan at Wellesley Free Library on Thursday night and then solicited feedback — and got a ton of great ideas — from the three or four dozen people who attended.

The group’s big challenge will be narrowing its focus to keep things manageable, though it’s  still at the stage of needing to fill out its agenda. For example, the team hopes to have 50 hands-on exhibits and so far has about half that number, so is still very open to new ideas.

The highlight of the effort will be the actual 4-hour science fair, which organizers say is intended to interest students K-12 but also adults. Attendees will have an opportunity to build and fly a hovercraft, use a seismograph, do dissections and visit a planetarium in the gym. Attendees will be exposed to women who have succeeded in STEM (science, technology, engineering & math) careers. The fair will be capped off with a talk by Wellesley public school-educated Nikolai Begg, now an award-winning Ph.D. candidate at MIT who has made a name for himself creating medical devices.

In particular, the group is looking to attract Wellesley teens who attend public and private schools  in hopes of sparking or deepening their interest in STEM topics and answering questions kids might have about STEM-related careers (which these days, as the organizers pointed out, don’t begin and end with titles such as scientist or mathematician — everything from sports to marketing to finance has a programming or tech angle to it). Organizers are working with teachers, possibly to give students extra credit for attending and otherwise being involved with the expo.

Marybeth Martello, who led the discussion at the library, said a major goal of the expo is to “raise the profile of STEM in Wellesley.” People don’t think of Wellesley when they think of STEM, like they do of say Cambridge, but she said having STEM become more part of the Wellesley fabric is a worthy goal. There are already encouraging signs in town, with increased interest in school clubs such as Science Olympiad and the new Wellesley High “Women in Computer Science Club.” Expo organizers also lauded work being done by Robert Cohen, a computer science and math instructor at WHS.

The idea for the townwide expo bubbled up from smaller science fairs at elementary schools, and now with the backing of the Wellesley Education Foundation and Wellesley Public School administration and staff, the expo team has big ambitions. Beyond the fair itself, the STEM effort will involve a community reading of Tony Wagner’s “Creating Innovators,” which Wellesley Public Library is stocking up on. A panel discussion on March 19 will further explore this book and topic.

The Wellesley effort is modeled in part after successful science programs in other communities, such as the annual Cambridge Science Festival, which attracts some 50,000 attendees. Wellesley organizers are hoping for 1,000-4,000 attendees.

At the Thursday night presentation and brainstorming session, ideas were flying. Attendees name-dropped people they knew at organizations such as Google, and at one point Wellesley programmer Jen Looper connected on the fly with a woman from MassBay regarding use of the school’s Raspberry Pi computers for teaching workshops at the fair. Organizers talked of hitting up the Red Sox for statistics experts and of finding people who could contribute to a digital art gallery or conduct workshops on the science of cooking. A WHS teacher raised the idea of enlisting students to promote the expo via various social media networks, such as Instagram and Tumblr.

(The least scientific part of the meeting took place at the end when attendees were asked by show of hands where they heard about the Expo and meeting. A few raised their hands for this or that source, though we suspect most heard about it from us.)

A spiffier website for the expo is in the works, but in the meantime, you can join the group on Facebook to keep tabs on it.