Bowdoin Science Teams Head to Huge Science Fest on National Mall

Story posted October 11, 2010

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Nine Bowdoin students, and their professors, are going toe-to-toe with astronauts, leading physicists, engineers, and all manner of scientist as participants in the first-ever USA Science & Engineering Festival, Oct. 10-24, 2010, in Washington, D.C.

Described by organizers as "a giant science party on America's front lawn," the free festival is designed to re-invigorate the interest of young people in science, technology, engineering and math by presenting some of the most exciting, educational and entertaining science taking place in the nation. The event is expected to draw more than 100,000 visitors a day.

Bowdoin is one of only two colleges invited to participate in the Festival's Science Expo, Oct. 23-24, the culminating event which features over 1,500 exhibits and interactive presentations by leading institutes, government and federal laboratories, universities, and science and engineering societies.

"I think it's a credit to Bowdoin that they're coming a long distance and they jumped at it with two very exciting exhibits." said Larry Bock '81, executive director of the Festival.

A biochemistry major while at Bowdoin, Bock eventually went on to found Nanosys, a leader in the nanotechnology industry. "We're doing this because we believe that society gets what it celebrates. And we don't celebrate science and engineering enough," he said.

Two teams of Bowdoin students are participating:

Soccer-Playing Robots

Faculty: Eric Chown
Students: John Morrison '11, Brian Jacobel '14, Glen Merritt '11, Danielle McAvoy '13, Edwin Johnson '11.

The team will demonstrate the prowess of its internationally competitive soccer-playing humanoid robots. Visitors will get hands-on opportunities to program the robot to perform their own personalized kick using Bowdoin's unique design system. Demonstration of the robots' visual tracking will allow visitors to see the world through the robot's eyes.

Getting on Your Nerves


Faculty: Patsy Dickinson and Hadley W. Horch
Students: Audrey Bergeron '12, Abishag Suresh '12, Anna Ausubel '10, Anirudh Sreekrishnan '12, Brian Powers '10


Visitors can watch as electrical signals move up and down nerves in cockroach legs that have been wired so they can be seen as amplified signals on a screen. The team also takes hands-on learning literally with a demonstration of proprioception—the ability to sense position and movement of the body and its parts. Students will demonstrate how vibrations applied to a tendon under the elbow trick the brain into thinking the arm is more bent than it is, leading to hysterical misperceptions of hand position.

"I think science always needs to have more ambassadors," says Associate Professor of Biology and NeuroscienceHadley Horch, adding: "At least a couple of the students we've invited down have an interest in education, so this will give them some experience—admittedly on a nutty scale, with 6,000 visitors expected at each booth a day."

Among the activities planned, visitors can build an underwater robot, chat with a Nobel Laureate, explore the science behind the magic of Hogwarts Academy and see a car that drives itself. Additionally, over 50 stage shows will feature celebrities and science-themed performances. More than 25 satellite events are taking place around the country.

"It's pretty exciting," notes Professor of Computer Science Eric Chown, who has taken Bowdoin's Northern Bites Robocup Team to championship competitions around the globe. "Anytime you get a bunch of people together who are excited about science and showing off what they do, it's very stimulating. I'll go with eyes open and plan to be surprised."

Chown and his team are doing a "test-run" of their demonstration by inviting the Cumberland County 4-H Lego Robotics Group to visit Bowdoin's Computer Lab to try out the activities. "I think it will be a great interaction," says Chown. "The 4-H members are kids ages 7-12, so it's right in line with what the festival is trying to do on a larger scale."

This will be the second major conference Danielle McAvoy '13 has attended within a month. Earlier, the robotics team member attended a Women in Computing conference in Atlanta, Ga.

"I just lucked out," laughs McAvoy. "I think it's really cool to get to talk to all these people. I'm trying to figure out what things there are in computer science and see what I like best. But I'm as excited to have people learn about the robots as I am to see some of the other stuff at the festival."

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