Science at the White House

At the Academy for Science and Design (ASD), a STEM-focused charter school located in Nashua, New Hampshire (www.asdnh.org), students are characterized by their creativity, motivation, and passion for learning. Although their pursuit of knowledge is ongoing, ASD students are particularly eager to explore new areas of interest during SPARK days. SPARK, which stands for Symposium Promoting the Advancement of Real-World Knowledge, takes place several times per year, and serves as an enrichment experience for members of the ASD community. The concept was modeled after Splash, an annual event for high schoolers held at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). During SPARK, each student’s regular schedule is replaced by four self-selected workshops on unfamiliar subjects. These sessions are taught by teachers, volunteers, and high school students. Although SPARK workshops cover a wide range of topics, they all have one thing in common: the presenters are extremely passionate about sharing their knowledge with students.

On March 30th, 2016, an exciting new SPARK session was offered to ASD students of all grade levels. This workshop, taught by Dr. Allison M. Curran, was called Science at the White House. Dr. Curran, a Nashua High School graduate, is an extremely accomplished scientist, with a PhD in chemistry and research in forensics. In the past, she has published a vast array of papers, secured multiple patents, and authored a book. Now, she works at the White House, in the national security division of the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP). Dr. Curran’s SPARK session focused on the functionality of the OSTP, and the tremendous importance of science in modern policy. Congress established the Office of Science and Technology Policy in 1976 with a broad mandate to advise the President and others within the Executive Office of the President on the effects of science and technology on domestic and international affairs.The mission of the Office of Science and Technology Policy is threefold; first, to provide the President and his senior staff with accurate, relevant, and timely scientific and technical advice on all matters of consequence; second, to ensure that the policies of the Executive Branch are informed by sound science; and third, to ensure that the scientific and technical work of the Executive Branch is properly coordinated so as to provide the greatest benefit to society.According to Curran, the end goal of this process is "to apply knowledge for an enhanced human experience."

The students in Dr. Curran’s workshop were thrilled to meet her and learn about her experiences. She spoke to students about her own academic journey, and the various ways in which science has shaped her career. Although ASD students are united by a love of the STEM subjects, many are also interested in areas such as policy and social sciences. Consequently, they were delighted to learn about the vital role that science plays in policy. Curran explained that, under President Obama, the role of the OSTP has greatly expanded, making science and technology more important than ever. "Currently, the most pressing issues that my department is dealing with include cyber strategy, STEM education, and technology innovation. We are constantly exploring new and evolving areas as we look towards the future of technology," she stated.

In order to encourage a discussion-oriented atmosphere, Dr. Curran began by asking students to stand up and explain why they were interested in Science at the White House. The consensus among students was that they wanted to see how science and politics blended together, revealing a bigger picture of the complex interactions which occur every day throughout our country. Curran emphasized the idea that the students represented the future of innovation, and encouraged them to examine the scientific issues that were important to them. For instance, students discussed many space-related issues, such as recolonization, space weather, Mars research, and extraterrestrial life.

When asked for advice on choosing a STEM-related career path, Curran stated that "the most important thing is to do something that you love and are passionate about. As our world continues to evolve, you will have to make decisions for many reasons, and your path will be unique to you." The Science at the White House SPARK session prompted students to ponder the applications of the STEM subjects in contexts which they had never previously considered. It informed students of the vital role that science plays in government policy, while exposing them to a new realm of scientific possibility.