Last week the UK's biggest engineering science fair attracted 65,000 students aged 7-19 to the largest celebration of science & engineering in the country. The goal of the fair is to celebrate real world STEM applications and show young people the "exciting and rewarding opportunities" for these careers.
I've got some expectations of this type of festival. At ENGINEERING.com we've been sponsors of the USA Science & Engineering Festival since it launched 3 years ago. The USA event is excellent at inspiring youngsters to pursue a science or engineering career. In fact, we have heard nothing but praise for this huge (over 500,000 attendees) event.
So I was a bit surprised to read the media negativity about the UK fair. At Pressenza, Dr. Stuart Parkinson lamented the "corporate influence" in the fair, particularly the role of arms manufacturers and fossil fuel extraction companies BAE and Shell. Over at the Guardian, Alice Bell took a similar tone in her article titled "a depressing vision of science and engineering".
That's not the whole story, according to Beth Elgood at EngineeringUK, the show's organizer. She said that the single biggest source of funding for the fair was individual engineers rather than any corporate sponsor. She also said, "the response from the show was overwhelmingly positive, but there have been a couple of negative stories."
The purpose of this sort of festival is to inspire young people to pursue science and engineering programs. This is a laudable goal, since so many of the world's challenges, from clean drinking water to sustainable energy, from medical devices to improved communications, all rely on engineering talent to find a solution. To that end, Big Bang UK was a real success. Their survey of attendees found that 97% rated the fair as very or quite enjoyable and over half of the 11-19 year olds said they spoke to exhibitors about careers.
So if these outreach programs like these are worthwhile, where should the money come from? Attendees? Not likely - these fairs are free so that students will come. Or is it OK to have companies with a vested interest in hiring future engineers help fund such events, even if their corporate values don't match your own?
On balance, I'm for getting these fairs funded by corporate donors. The kids who select science careers will be informed enough to know where their paychecks come from, and smart enough to help the world solve some big challenges.