TSF at ScoutFest


J.P. Biondo, ORNL’s hosting and rigging manager, demonstrates mechanical leverage using three 25-pound sandbags with one, two and four pulleys to scout Luke Henley, 10, of Pack 718 in Knoxville.

Scouts from around East Tennessee learned about supercomputing, electricity, isotopes, physics and much more at ORNL’s final Traveling Science Fair event of 2019, held at ScoutFest in Blaine, Tenn., on Saturday, October 19th.

“These are fun to do,” said ORNL computer scientist John Gounley, standing between the mirror chamber and “Tiny Titan” video game in one of the fair’s six trailers.

“We’ve had a lot of kids excited about programming their Raspberry Pi’s,” he said, referring to the small, inexpensive single-board computers that make up Tiny Titan. “The idea that they could put something like a simulation together was pretty compelling to them.”

About 40 science and support staff from ORNL worked ScoutFest, which drew about 3,000 attendees and featured a variety of activities such as rock-climbing, welding and ax-throwing in addition to ORNL’s trailers.

The science fair made a favorable impression on the visiting adults as well as scouts. “I guarantee you today there were kids that went in there and said, ‘You mean I could do this for a job?'” said Mike Fossum, an astronaut, Eagle Scout and vice president of the Galveston campus of Texas A&M University. He was the event’s guest speaker and said the “beautiful” Science Fair excited the boys and girls parading through.

“They’re going to hear something in school later that’s going to be related to something they saw in the trailer and they’re going to go, ‘I want to learn this.’ You could have future engineers, scientists — just young people that turn into the generation that’s running our country with a little more awareness of science and technology, (which) is a very good thing.”

Saturday’s event was the eighth of 2019, with an estimated attendance for all of this year’s science fair events totaling more than 20,000.

Michaela Hall from the Environment, Safety & Health Directorate oversees logistics and safety for the fair, in addition to co-leading the Mission Support trailer with Bob Baugh. Mission Support’s latest science fair activity is a series of three sandbags that can be lifted by ropes through one, two and four pulleys.

“It shows how you use mechanical advantage to lift a certain weight with less effort,” Michaela explained. “It’s been great. It’s easy for them to understand because they physically get to do it and, no matter what their age, they can make that connection between understanding and physically feeling it.”

Scouts, parents and volunteer leaders alike expressed appreciation for ORNL’s presence at ScoutFest.

“He’s enthralled with it,” said Will Robinson, recalling his 7-year-old son Liam’s reaction when he saw the Science Fair trailers lined up: ” ‘We’re going to hit everyone of them, Dad!’ Yes we are.”

Said ScoutFest Chairman Logan Hickman: “Scouting and STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) go hand in hand, and ORNL took us from the Tennessee Valley Fair to Disney World as far as STEM.”

The first scheduled event of 2020 is the USA Science & Engineering Festival in Washington, D.C., in April, but several area school systems have requested the Science Fair as well and may be scheduled in March.

The events are a team effort involving staff from across ORNL, requiring creativity to design exhibits and activities as well as significant logistical support to transport, set up, and break down the trailers, tents, and activities.

“This is my third one,” said John, from the computing trailer, sharing a researcher’s perspective on the Traveling Science Fair. “We’re very used to explaining our stuff to a certain (scientific) audience, and this is a very different audience. From the Lab’s perspective … these are the people we need to convince if we want this sort of work to be funded and to see that this work is useful to the nation.” — David Keim