SIAM at the USA Science and Engineering Festival

September 18, 2011

Rachel Levy of Harvey Mudd College intrigues young visitors with the interactive Soap and Slope activity.
SIAM was the sponsor of a booth---one of about 1500---at the USA Science and Engineering Festival, held on the National Mall in Washington, DC, the weekend of October 23 and 24. The event, which was hosted by Lockheed Martin, drew many thousands of visitors. By our unofficial estimate, some 2000 people stopped by the SIAM booth to talk about applied mathematics and enjoy a number of hands-on activities. The festival will be repeated in April 2012, and SIAM will again host a booth.

If you have ideas or would like to volunteer, Peter Turner, SIAM's vice president for education and coordinator of SIAM's participation in the 2010 festival, will be happy to hear from you! For inspiration, here are some details about the 2010 SIAM booth and activities.

The focal points of the SIAM booth were "Soap and Slope," an activity put together by Rachel Levy (Harvey Mudd College), and two pieces created by Mark Levi (Penn State). "Soap and Slope" was a particular hit with some of the younger visitors, who experimented with surface tension and changes induced by a surfactant (liquid dish detergent). Participants floated pepper and paper boats on a shallow pool of water in a paper plate and were surprised by the dramatic effect produced by the addition of a small drop of soap. Through their attempts to reproduce the effects, visitors gained an understanding of the basic concepts of change and, especially, rate of change driving the observed physical phenomena.

One of Mark Levi's projects was a carefully constructed wooden cycloid track spanning some seven feet. In experiments with ball bearings, he and helpers demonstrated the equal-descent-time properties of the curve, intriguing people from middle school to middle age. The explanations varied in mathematical sophistication from geometry to differential equations, all arriving at the basic message that mathematics shows this to be the only shape "in the world" with this property. The idea that similar thinking can play a role in engineering design applications and elsewhere gave visitors an appreciation for the value of applied mathematics in the modern world.

Levi's other project, a rotational chain that was driven by a high-speed electric motor and that exhibited some apparently gravity-defying effects, attracted the biggest crowds to the booth. Although the underlying mathematics was probably not accessible to many in the audience, Levi and Penn State grad student Russell deForest made a convincing case that mathematics explains the phenomena, without for the most part getting into too much detail!

Many volunteers contributed to SIAM's presence in the event. The idea of SIAM's involvement emanated from the Education Committee, which Peter Turner chairs. In addition to those already named, several other volunteers helped make the event a success: Padhu Seshaiyer of the math department at George Mason and students Jada Williams (Shippensburg), and Jyoti Saraswat, David Trott, Jonathan McHenry, and Zana Coulibaly (officers of the SIAM Student Chapter at UMBC) gave up large parts of their weekends and did a great job of attracting visitors and managing and explaining the activities.

It's not too early to start thinking about next year's USA Science and Engineering Festival. Ideas and offers of help can be directed to Peter Turner of Clarkson University (

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