NSF, ASU inspiring kids to 'change the world'

Across America, interest in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields and degrees is dwindling. Students often shy away from STEM courses as early as elementary school, leaving the educational system in need of opportunities to inspire and engage more interest in these areas.

In an effort to increase awareness of STEM careers in today’s youth, the National Science Foundation and Congressman Frank Wolf organized the “Change the World: Science and Engineering Careers Fair” at the Dulles Town Center Mall in Virginia on September 27-28. Arizona State University’s Decision Center for a Desert City was invited by the National Science Foundation and Congressman Wolf to participate in the fair.

Wolf said that currently in the United States, there are half the number of graduating physicists as there were in 1956 and most of today’s STEM graduates come from foreign countries who return home, taking their knowledge with them.

Decision Center for a Desert City, an initiative under ASU’s Global Institute of Sustainability, conducts water, climate and decision-making research to develop boundary-breaking methods that foster a sustainable future. Its education coordinators partner with local K-12 teachers to develop interactive and engaging ways of presenting the center's work to young students.

“It is vital to expose students in STEM research at an early age to inspire their love of science, improve their confidence in their own ability to pursue education in STEM fields and show them how research and modeling can help improve their lives and the lives of friends and family,” says Dave White, co-director of the center, senior sustainability scientist in the Global Institute of Sustainability and associate professor in the School of Community Resources and Development.

The Dulles Town Center Mall was transformed over the weekend with stands and tables from over 100 exhibitors, like Decision Center for a Desert City, National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration, National Weather Service, NASA Education, U.S. Geological Survey, National Science Foundation and ASU’s Quantum Energy and Sustainable Solar Technologies Engineering Research Center.

“This event provided an opportunity to educate the future citizens, scientists and engineers who will lead society in developing solutions to pressing sustainability problems,” White says.

Decision Center for a Desert City program manager Liz Marquez and graduate student Rashmi Krishnamurthy represented the center at the fair to demonstrate the mobile version of WaterSim, the center's water simulation system used to explore the future of water supplies in central Arizona based on factors like climate change, population growth, drought and policy changes.

“Interested students walked up to WaterSim and exclaimed, ‘What is this?’” Marquez says. “The students and their parents visualized the outcomes of their water use by running simulations of their indoor and outdoor water use. This allowed them to personalize the science.”

WaterSim can be accessed online and implemented in any educational setting.

“Students provided valuable feedback to help us improve the model for use in classrooms across the country,” White says. “Their input will be instrumental as we continuously update the model to improve the usability and relevance of WaterSim for K-12 education.”

Today’s environmental and societal problems are in dire need of future engineers, doctors, technicians and scientists. Fortunately, at the fair, these future leaders gained a first-hand impression of who they could be when they grow up. 

The center would also like to thank fair supporters David Sampson, Decision Center for a Desert City research scientist; Ray Quay, center director of stakeholder relations; Peggy Nelson, center co-principal investigator and education program coordinator; Monica Elser, education program coordinator; Erik Johnston, associate professor in the School of Public Affairs and director of Center for Policy Informatics.