This April, the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) took part as exhibitors at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. This was AASM's first time attending the festival which is the largest conference of its kind promoting and celebrating science and technology in the United States hosting 370,000 attendees including schoolchildren, educators, and the general public. The AASM's exhibit featured interactive games as well as materials aimed at the promotion of healthy sleep habits in all age groups. A few individuals presented with more specific questions and were provided education and directed to online resources approved by the Academy. It was apparent that many people were unaware of the field of sleep medicine and responded favorably to our presence. We hope our account of the experience helps inform thought on further direction the AASM takes in the realm of public outreach and education.
Kwasnik A, Castillo-Pedraza C. Sleep at the USA Science and Engineering Festival—a new outreach for the American Academy of Sleep Medicine. J Clin Sleep Med. 2018;14(8):1449–1450.
This April, as fellows at the University of Miami/Jackson Memorial Hospital sleep fellowship program, we had the honor to represent the American Academy of Sleep Medicine (AASM) at the USA Science and Engineering Festival in Washington, DC. The festival is the largest conference of its kind promoting and celebrating science and technology in the United States. The Expo in its current configuration was founded in 2010 by American entrepreneur and science education advocate, Larry Bock, and continues under the leadership of Science Spark, a non-profit science outreach organization (usasciencefestival.org). It is free, open to the public, and features exhibitors from corporations, government agencies, nonprofit organizations, and institutions of higher learning. Per the festival's official website, its mission is to stimulate and sustain the interest of the nation's youth in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). This year's event was the fifth of its kind and, according to the official newsletter, hosted 370,000 attendees.
It was the first time the AASM decided to take part among the hundreds of exhibitors who present a variety of educational and entertaining materials to learners of all ages. Considering the exploratory nature of the assignment, requirements for the volunteers selected were quite relaxed—energy and flexibility. Admittedly, our quick acceptance of the offer was in part influenced by the prospect of visiting DC during the cherry blossom festival; however, the opportunity to represent the AASM during a mission of public outreach did seem like a unique way to finish up this year of fellowship. Despite receiving little pressure or expectation, we still wanted to prepare as well as possible. In the weeks leading up to the event, we reflected on the relationship between sleep and STEM as well as on the role that a sleep physician may play in such an informal learning environment.
Technology has been an integral tool in progressing modern medicine including the science of sleep. We undeniably benefit from its use in diagnosing and treating our patients' complaints, but technology does have some less than healthy consequences that cannot be ignored. For example, the advent of electricity allowed society to adopt a 24-hour workday and push the boundaries of what could be considered a normal sleep schedule. Most of us are not surprised, albeit not pleased, to see our patients using portable electronic devices during video polysomnography review. Smart phone apps used by some patients to track their sleep raise alarm in others. As the list expands, it may be beneficial for sleep specialists to emphasize the complexity of the relationship between technology and sleep. With neighboring festival exhibitors such as Robotfest, Robolink, and Robboteca among others, it is difficult to deny that mechanization may outperform humans in a number of fields during our lifetime. This raises the question of what aspects of humanity can ensure our productivity and continued development in the future. We may want to focus our efforts on fostering what is most unique in people—our creativity and adaptability, attributes seemingly supported by healthy sleep. Participation in this festival provides a unique opportunity to encourage those interested in STEM to be protective of their sleep.
As physicians we routinely provide education and ideally tailor it to the needs of the individual patient. That model would require some rethinking to serve the 5,000–12,000 visitors each exhibitor could expect based on the festival's statistics from the 2015 event. We wondered—what would an eclectic mix of students, educators, and parents alike want to learn from a momentary encounter with us? Luckily the AASM delegated the task of organizing our exhibition booth to Brittany Bersano (Figure 1), the young and energetic Membership Coordinator from the AASM's national office outside of Chicago, who came up with engaging activities for all age groups.
Volunteering at the AASM booth.
From left to right: Dr. Catalina Castillo-Pedraza, Dr. Aleksandra Kwasnik, Brittany Bersano.
Unsurprisingly, despite all our preparation, not too many booth visitors were interested in discussing the reciprocal relationship between technology and sleep. Ultimately the most popular activities were as follows: guessing how long a sloth sleeps for the younger children, mimicking sleep deprivation using Drunk Busters' “snooze goggles” (Figure 2) for the adolescents, and using our presence to start arguments about bedtimes for the parents. Given that we were situated in the same hall as full sized jet planes and virtual reality booths, we were pleasantly surprised that people not only approached our station but showed genuine interest in what we had to offer. Kids displayed a range of attitudes about sleep and many seemed responsive to our advice. Parents expressed gratitude when we pointed out the dangers of insufficient sleep. Educators shared some interesting insights such as point systems they used to reward adequate duration of sleep and, as has been recently reported, delays in high school start times to accommodate the needs of teenagers. A few individuals presented with more specific questions and were surprised to learn that their complaints were suggestive of some common sleep disorders. It was apparent that many people were completely unaware of the existence of sleep medicine, let alone the AASM.
Visitors to the AASM booth playing interactive games.
Visitors to the AASM booth playing interactive games.
About halfway through the conference we were asked whether we thought it would be beneficial for the AASM to send representatives the following years. The reflexive answer was an enthusiastic “yes” due to our own positive experience and the reactions and feedback of visitors to our booth. Upon second thought we realized we were answering as clinicians, for whom even one patient doing well is a considerable success. Considering the question from the perspective of the AASM and the body of sleep physicians it represents; the answer was less clear. It depends on what we hope to gain from our presence—if it is monetary profit or networking opportunities the benefit is unclear. If, however, we want to increase awareness of sleep among the public, there are few better opportunities for direct contact with thousands of eyes and ears. We asked a friend who had visited our booth whether he found our presence there seemed out of place. He pointed out that we were in the company of other health care-related exhibitors such as dentists, pharmacists, and microbiologists whose specialties were no more relevant than ours. In that regard it seems that although the benefits sleep medicine and the AASM may receive from our participation may not be tangible, our presence at the festival or similar events could be an important tool in maintaining a public image and spreading awareness of our cause. Considering the amazing technology presented by other exhibitors, it would certainly be nice to have some more high tech exercises for the children to enjoy in the future. The parents and educators may benefit from more pamphlets and reading materials to study while waiting on the kids. Ultimately, however we may define our success at such an event, it depends largely on the energy and enthusiasm of the AASM representatives who attend, and we were just happy to contribute ours.
The authors report no conflicts of interest.
The authors thank the AASM for taking us along on this adventure and express gratitude to Dr. Alexandre Abreu, Dr. Douglas Wallace, and Dr. Alejandro Chediak, our mentors in Miami, without whom our participation would not have been possible.