STEM conference takes off with superhero theme

Teacher/author Adam Weiner speaks at the STEM Carib 2018 conference at UCCI Tuesday night. - Photo: Mark Muckenfuss

Spotlighting superheroes and e-sports, this year’s STEM Carib conference at the University College of the Cayman Islands got off to a heavily entertainment-influenced start for its weeklong run at the campus.

Tuesday night’s keynote address by teacher and author Adam Weiner looked at physics through the prism of Hollywood action films. Mr. Weiner spoke again on Wednesday morning and was followed by a presentation on e-sports by representatives of Harrisburg University, a partner school of UCCI and co-sponsor of the conference.

A high school physics instructor in San Diego, California, Mr. Weiner said he wrote his book “Don’t Try This at Home: The Physics of Hollywood Movies” as a way to help science teachers engage students through popular culture.

“It works really well,” Mr. Weiner said. “Any hook in is good and the thing most kids are connected to is movies.”

Since he began using the strategy more than a decade ago, he said, others have picked it up.

“There are more and more people that do this now,” he said. “Neil deGrasse Tyson does this now. It’s become a more common thing.”

For Tuesday night’s opening event, more than 200 people listened to Mr. Weiner, a former actor, talk about the physics – and often the lack thereof – behind the fantasy of popular films.

“Physics is beautiful,” he said, “but not everybody knows that. When you see the rules and the laws of how it all fits together, it’s kind of amazing.”

Knowing those laws, he said, allows one to analyze what is presented on a movie screen, whether it’s intended to be real or not.

“It’s interesting to look at these scenes and ask, ‘What could really happen?’”

Perhaps his best illustration was an initial clip he played from “The Dark Knight,” where Batman flies across downtown Hong Kong, from one skyscraper to another and crashes through a window to get at one of the film’s villains. Mr. Weiner presented charts from an analysis on the wings used by the Caped Crusader and whether they could actually carry him on the flight he takes.

The analysis showed that yes, in fact, the action could take place in the real world. But the end of the flight would create certain problems. For Batman to succeed in reaching the other building, he’d need to be traveling at approximately 50 miles per hour.

Crashing into a plate glass window at such speed, Mr. Weiner said, “is probably going to be something we call fatal.”

For students like Alec Harding, 15, such scrutiny is intriguing.

“I like problem-solving,” said Alec, a UCCI student studying engineering.

He said this is the third year he has attended the conference.

“A lot of the career choices I will make are [related to] this,” Alec said, adding that he has benefited from the previous conferences. “I learned a lot about renewable energy sources. Last year, someone talked about geospatial mapping with drones.”

Fellow student, Danielle Garcia, 16, is working on a degree in computer science. An avid video game player, she said she was looking forward to learning more about gaming.

Wednesday morning’s presentation by Harrisburg University President Eric Darr and the school’s media department director Charles Palmer was as much a promotion of the school’s recently formed e-sports team – they tossed T-shirts emblazoned with the team’s logo to the audience – as it was a discussion of the opportunities in the field. They noted that the global e-sports industry (separate from game development) is expected to generate $1 billion this year.

There are currently more than 100 college teams in the National Association of Collegiate E-sports, Mr. Darr said.

“We offered 16 full-ride scholarships,” he said, adding that represented half of the school’s 32 recruited players.

Such scholarships are being offered by other universities as well, he said.

In addition to professional players, there are career opportunities for announcers, coaches, business and event managers, marketing and more.

“There’s definitely a job in this, if you’re interested,” Mr. Palmer said.

“It’s here to stay and it will only get bigger,” Mr. Darr added.

He’s hoping the same is true of the conference.

During his opening remarks on Tuesday night, Mr. Darr said he believed a bright future lay ahead for the conference.

“Every year has gotten bigger and better,” he said. “These three days are about exploration, inspiration, about what’s possible.”

UCCI President Roy Bodden paid homage to the late Dr. Bill Hrudey, who, along with Mr. Bodden, established the conference.

“We lost our mentor, our energizer and adviser,” Mr. Bodden said, referring to Dr. Hrudey’s death in February. “[He] would not be satisfied if this initiative died with him. I’m proud to say we are going on stronger than ever.”

The conference represents part of the effort Mr. Bodden has made in his nine years as president to bring science to a campus that was dominated by accounting and business programs. STEM courses, he said, provide students with important tools for an increasingly technological society.

“I believe it is the way to go,” he said.

The conference continues through the week, finishing on Friday with a free family fun afternoon from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m.