Discover Engineering Family Day Celebrates 25 Years of Illuminating Engineering

By Chris McManes

Discover Engineering Family Day attendees have met an astronaut. They’ve seen one of NASCAR champion Jeff Gordon’s racecars. They even saw an engineer ascend to the top of the National Building Museum.

On Saturday, 18 February, from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., Family Day will be held for the 25th time. It will kick off Engineers Week activities in the National Capital region. Through the years, it has illuminated engineering to thousands of parents, teachers and children.

Family Day is designed to introduce children 4- to 12-years-old to the wonders of engineering. This year marks the 16th the event is being staged at the National Building Museum. Engineers of all types will be on hand to share their love of the design-and-build process.

Longtime Discover Engineering Family Day Planning Committee Chair Bruce Cranford said the festival has three major goals.

“First, we want to encourage students to study engineering,” Cranford said. “Second, we want to interest some in becoming technicians. Our third goal is to improve technical literacy among the general public.

“I think all these things are important for the United States to remain competitive in the world.”


DiscoverE Executive Director Leslie Collins helped plan the first event in 1993. She thinks the hands-on activities and support of the engineering community shows how much engineers contribute to our health, safety and happiness.

“Family Day still has the same spirit, the spirit of the make and take,” Collins said. “You get to meet engineers, and see some cool stuff that you don’t see in school. It’s really a fun day.”

Former Space Shuttle Columbia astronaut, Dr. Roger Crouch, will once again pose for photos, sign autographs and talk about what it’s like to soar through space.

Another big highlight will be clips and discussion of the new IMAX film Dream Big: Engineering Our World. Contributing engineers will be on hand to talk about their projects.

The IEEE-USA exhibit will feature a dynamo and three-light box. It will allow people to actually feel how much energy it takes to power three different light bulbs. Volunteers staffing the booth will include, among others, IEEE-USA President Karen Pedersen; and past presidents Marc Apter, Pete Eckstein and Jim Jefferies.

Major sponsors of the 25th anniversary event include IEEE-USA, the National Building Museum, the Northrop Grumman Foundation, DiscoverE, and the National Council of Examiners for Engineering and Surveying (NCEES).


The Early Years

Family Day can be traced back to 17 February 1993, when an “Engineers Week Gala” was held at Intelsat, a satellite services provider in Washington, D.C. More than 200 people attended.

The program included tours of Intelsat and Future City Competition exhibits, banners and posters. Future City, an engineering design competition for middle school students, also launched that year.

Former IEEE President Martha Sloan, the organization’s first woman president, emceed the program. She was chosen because IEEE-USA was serving as National Engineers Week lead society. Chevron was IEEE-USA’s corporate partner. Ken Hakuta, an internationally known inventor and host of a TV series for 6- to 11-year-olds, was among the speakers.

The event was designed to celebrate engineering as a profession. Future City winners were announced, as were the winners of a photo contest for practicing engineers and engineering students. The contest highlighted engineering’s contributions toward the development of safe and efficient energy.

The gala became “Family Night” and moved to Washington, D.C.’s National Air Space Museum in 1994. It remained there four years.

“We wanted a bigger venue,” Collins said. “And we wanted a place that people would want to come to. We found that in the Air & Space Museum.”

That first year featured Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

“He was on TV at the time but not quite as big a star as he is now,” Collins said. “He came to do a show in the IMAX Theater. And we had a lot of make and take. We put out a lot of food, too, which we don’t do anymore. There were probably a thousand people.”

One drawback to the museum, Collins said, was that its permanent exhibitions drew attention away from Family Night activities. So in 1998, the event moved to the Great Hall of the National Building Museum. The switch coincided with the launch of the traveling exhibition, “Breaking Through: The Creative Engineer.”

“There had been this grant [from ConocoPhillips] to the Building Museum for the exhibition,” Collins said. “So we built the event to coincide with that. It was nice having Family Day there. Not only because of the space and the way it’s laid out, but because all the exhibits were ones that people paid attention to.

“Instead of wandering off [from one exhibit to another] at Air and Space, it’s more of a captive crowd for us. ”

Family Day Continues Introducing Engineering to Students

Family Day became a Saturday daytime festival in 2002. About 30 local and national exhibitors participate each year. Linder Global Events manages and organizes the gathering in conjunction with the Family Day Planning Committee. Cranford, an aerospace/mechanical engineer, retired as committee chairm after the 2016 event. Luis Escobar, a heating, air conditioning and refrigeration engineer, succeeded him.

With the move to the weekend, attendance has risen. Having the Judiciary Square Metro Station across the street from the museum has likely played a role.

From 2007 to 2010, an average of 6,806 visitors came to the event. Over the past five years, attendance has averaged 8,812. On 19 February 2011, Family Day drew a National Building Museum, one-day record — 13,994 visitors.

IEEE-USA and DuPont served as EWeek co-chairs and Family Day presenting sponsors in 2014. It marked the first time since 2011 that Atlas Devices co-founder Nate Ball entertained the crowd by using a vertical-ascent and rescue device to fly to the top of the Building Museum. Onlookers gazed in wonder as Ball soared 122 feet off the ground.

Ball said Family Day provides him with an unrivaled opportunity to promote his company’s Atlas Power Ascender and talk to people about why he loves being an engineer.

“The audience is really excited, and it’s just the coolest venue to get to demo in – ever,” he said. “The 12-story indoor space is unparalleled. There’s just nothing like it. Putting those two together make it one of my favorite events to participate in.”

Chris McManes is IEEE-USA’s public relations manager, and vice-chair of the Discover Engineering Family Day Planning Committee.

Guest Contributor

IEEE-USA is an organizational unit of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, Inc. (IEEE), created in 1973 to support the career and public policy interests of IEEE’s U.S. members. IEEE-USA is primarily supported by an annual assessment paid by U.S. IEEE Members.

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