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INCUBATION OF INNOVATION ! Guest Author Satish Bhatnagar, Ph.D.

Today, I participated in a high school STEM (acronym for Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) event. I was there after a gap of several years – partly, due to the disruption caused by COVID-19. By the way, the acronym STEM has literally become global – another way of looking at subtle impacts that the US makes. 

In fact, I was one of the judges (perhaps, the only faculty member) of nearly 60 projects entered in this event. They were systematically displayed in the UNLV’s most beautiful meeting hall overlooking the world famous Las Vegas Strip, which really has modern marvels of architecture, engineering and technology. Ambiance is integral for any event. My College of Sciences was the main driving force as I did not sense the presence of the College of Engineering though quite a few projects involved a lot of engineering. Anyways!!

It is essential to give some background of this science show. The Beal Bank has been sponsoring this science contest for the last few years. There may be minor sponsors too. In a population of nearly 3 million people in metropolitan Las Vegas, there are at least 100 private and public (in India, called government) high schools (9-12 grades) – including magnet schools in specialized areas. Despite the global image of Las Vegas for its adult entertainment, I must say that the education caliber of both high schools and their graduates belie this image. This is based upon my living in Las Vegas since 1974. Moreover, my children and grandchildren have attended or are attending these schools. 

Since the number of displays was relatively small, my guess is that some kind of screening might have taken place at individual school levels. In the past, I have visited the school campuses in order to judge the projects.

UNLV provides the space for the exhibits, logistics, and manpower to coordinate and organize this annual event. This is in contrast to universities in India, which are elite silos and have little dealings with the community around them. At least 50% of the job of the president (equivalent to vice-chancellor in India) of a state university, in the US,  is about dealing with the surrounding community. 

Anyways, In return for hosting such events, some of these bright students might decide to attend UNLV. That is how the national ranking of universities rises too. The projects are open for viewing to the public for certain hours, but not during the judging time, 4-6 PM as it was today. 

My assignment was to judge seven projects. There were clear guidelines for judging the projects, and they were made available two weeks prior to this event. At each table, I first read information about the project from the poster. The poster information seemed to follow a set format. After getting some general ideas, I gave 3-4 minutes to the student or to a team (of 2-3 students) to explain the project to me. That tells of their deeper understanding of what they have done. Invariably, I would engage them on various aspects for another 5-6 minutes. 

Evaluation of each project was based on 10 questions, and each one mostly on a 10-point scale. Incidentally, there was not even a single project that was directly connected with mathematics. However, I do recall a few in the past. In fairness, math projects are neither easy nor flashy. Besides, present-day students are turning into visual learners. Since 2010 (advent of smartphones) the skill of handwriting seems to have atrophied a bit. 

Well, I really wondered about the scientific awareness, especially the technical knowledge, that students had of the AI (Artificial Intelligence, another buzz word), simulation, coding, drones, robotics, 3-D printers etc. I know little of these, and in no way can I be close to them. At the age of 80 plus, I believe in a saying: I know little, but I know it very well!

At the end of my charge, I told a colleague that such an engagement of high school students in science projects is one of the reasons that the US remains miles ahead of the rest of the world in science and technology. Imagine this vast nursery of the young minds in science and technology in all the towns and cities of the US. Also, this is one of the several science events for the youth. In the US, there is nothing like a Science Day. Science is in the air of the US atmosphere. Young students are drawn to it as they are no less drawn towards athletics and fine arts. 

Finally, the culture of volunteerism sets the US apart from many countries. There is no bureaucracy involved. You have a certain idea and you are passionate about it, then you share it with others. Simple. That is how a stream is created. 

CV Raman (1888 – 1970) was the first Asian to win, in any branch of science, a Nobel Prize – his was in Physics (1930). He discovered The Raman Effect on February 28, 1928. Since 1987, this day has been celebrated annually by the Government of India as the National Science Day

Once the general mindset of the present-day Indians moves from esoteric beliefs and social practices, India can close the gap with the US. The Japanese did it 100 years ago. Lately, China has done it to some extent. Yes, political systems, ideologies and organized religions do factor in the development of science and technology. That is perhaps going too far from today’s event, so I put a full stop right here. What a day!

The views, thoughts, and opinions expressed in the above article solely belong to author Dr. Bhatnagar, and are not an endorsement by The editor is pleased to provide as a platform for the community members to engage in intellectual debates, opinions, constructive criticisms, and discussions.

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