June 25 was the 14th Congressional exhibition and reception of the Coalition for National Science Funding
. The coalition includes over 120 organizations, associations, and universities that track federal spending on science research. They also sponsor an annual Capitol Hill showcase of projects funded by NSF. It’s a nice event - held in the Rayburn Office Building and catered, with fancy but substantial appetizers and wine and beer. Free food and drinks at the dinner hour is a sure way to draw a crowd anywhere – especially on the Hill.
I had registered ASTC
as one of the 20 exhibitors for the evening. I picked my activities carefully – previous experience has taught me that there is a shortage of fun, hands-on activities there. Most tables are manned by academics and show the classic backdrop with graphs, data tables and images and too many journal reprints with tiny print. Determined to show off informal learning to its advantage, I picked two NanoDays activities from NISE Net, and two from another project I work on: Astronomy From the Ground Up
. The activities all focused on size and scale, with extremes ranging from the nanometer to the solar system. The props were pretty irresistible: the tiny tea cup from “Exploring Forces”; the paper to be cut in half 27 times to the nanoscale (an impossible challenge); Play-Doh planets; and a Pocket Solar System to be assembled at home.
...and surface tension rules!The event was well attended with over 400 participants, including 7 Congress members, lots of NSF program officers, and legislative and interns of all types (well, interns of most types). First time attendees get dismayed by overabundance of staffers and aides. They don’t get it that the way to a legislator’s ear is through her staff. Staffers also tend to specialize – once you know the science and techie ones, you see them repeatedly.
The trick to getting attention for your table in a crowd like this is to think strategically – don’t just wait for a walk-by. Target someone you want to know about your project, get the attention of their aide, and ask them to get their boss over for a few minutes. Once they are there, you can let the science demonstrator skills take over. Interacting with adults over science activities is not so different from playing with kids! They are just as amazed by gravity and surface tension - and like to see them tested.