Mama Madison: Finding out what the nerds are up to

Robots, catapults and helicopters - what's not to like?

Famously misattributed to Bill Gates, the quote "Be nice to nerds. Chances are you'll end up working for one," still rings pretty true.

"That's alright, that's okay. You're going to work for us someday," is what my college friends and I shouted at the top of our lungs in support of our winless football team. When the average lineman's weight is lower than his IQ, you have to come up with something to boost morale.

Even my mom got in on the pro nerd act, reminding me all through high school that, "He may seem a little geeky now, but nerds definitely make the best husbands." While settling down wasn't exactly top-of-mind my senior year, I paid heed to her advice when prom night came. My date sported horn-rimmed glasses, a yellow tux and looked like he stepped straight out of a Weird Science casting session. I resembled vintage Sarah Jessica Parker in my neon taffeta and oversized corsage. Unfortunately, the look was far more Square Pegs than Sex and the City.

Yes, my geek tendencies still run pretty strong. I am proud of my ability to speak over 250 words a minute, a skill mastered during hours of debate team practice. I can still recite Longfellow's "Midnight Ride of Paul Revere" on demand. And I can't tell you how jazzed up I am to go on my kid's field trip this week to Blue Mound State Park for Civil War Days. The costumed re-enactors will be performing a mock field amputation and will teach us how to can and make soap. What's not to love?

But I guess you would call me more of a "word nerd." I am definitely not a science geek. I hated dissections in school, and, due to my general uneasiness around any blood that isn't my own, never once entertained the thought of being a doctor. I am pretty much only interested in rocks in the form of mounted jewelry. And even though I have lived abroad, I feel more out of place walking the halls of the Computer Science building than I did scaling pyramids in the jungles of Guatemala.

But my kids and I have a unique opportunity to develop a keener appreciation of the hard sciences this week as UW-Madison plays host to the National Science Olympiad Tournament through Saturday. More than 6,000 students, educators and parents from all 50 states will be in the house for the 27th annual tournament. It's one of the nation's most prestigious competitions of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM); we'd be fools not to check it out.

The line-up of events sounds pretty cool. There is the "Helicopters" challenge, a flight endurance contest powered by rubber band engines. And there is "Storm the Castle," a precision catapult exercise. Kind of science fair meets Renaissance Faire.

New this year will be a "Sumo Bots," a boxing match of robots engineered to muscle other robot competitors from a ring. Kind of like a real life "Rock 'Em Sock 'Em Robots." Maybe next year there will be a way to bring the wonders of science to another toy from my youth, the "Easy Bake Oven." I'd love to be able to actually cook dinner for the whole family using a compact fluorescent light bulb.

FutureLab: The Innovation Expo will be open on Saturday, May 21 in the Engineering Centers Building. This unique traveling expo lets visitors test hydrogen fuel cell cars, play space station simulation games, and view a 3D hologram. And for die-hard sci-fi movie fans, there will be actual props from Star Wars and Alien. If they could only re-enact the "chest busting" dinner scene, they could give those pseudo- Civil War field surgeons a real run for their money.

Here is a full rundown of all events.

Now is the perfect time for my kids to be exposed to all the Science Olympiad has to offer. I hold out hope this expo will motivate them all to delve a little deeper into protons, neutrons and rocketry. Sure seems a lot more practical than talking fast or impersonating Stonewall Jackson.

And we will certainly be nice to all the exhibitors. It's never too early to start buttering up the boss.

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