Young STEM Superstars Head to the White House

Policy and Government

Young STEM Superstars Head to the White House

Geek-in-Chief Obama hosts the White House Science Fair

By Katrina Stevens     May 28, 2014

Young STEM Superstars Head to the White House

“Superstar biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot-builders don’t always get the attention that they deserve,” shared Obama, “but they’re who’s going to transform our society.”

Over 100 students showed off their creations at the White House on May 27. Obama contrasted these young scientists with a high-profile group of visitors that stopped by last week: the Super Bowl champions, Seattle Seahawks. “I’m a big sports fan. Everybody knows that. But what is being done by these amazing young people is more important.”

Obama entertained the audience with stories about his not-so-successful endeavors with science fairs as a kid: “One year I accidentally killed some plants that were a part of my experiment.” He continued, “Another time, a bunch of mice escaped in my grandmother’s apartment. These experiments did not take me straight to the White House.”

Obama also highlighted this year’s focus on girls and young women excelling at science, technology, engineering and math. “We’ve got half our team that we’re not even putting on the field,” urged Obama, after pointing out that fewer than 3 in 10 workers in science and engineering are women, and fewer than 1 in 5 bachelor’s degrees in engineering or computer science are awarded to them.

Bill Nye, “the Science Guy” with the bowtie, also recognized the importance of supporting young women in science: “One half of humans are female, so one half of scientists should be female.” It’s that simple.

Not Your Mother’s Girl Scouts or 4H

These accomplished STEM students not only had the opportunity to share their work with Obama and Nye at the White House, but also hung out with Kari Byron, host of Mythbusters, and NASA president and former astronaut, Charlie Bolden.

One crowd favorite was an Oklahoma Girl Scout Brownie troop that coded a flood-proof Lego bridge that senses when the water is rising too fast. “It will help save lives,” explained one of the second graders to Obama.

The Oklahoma Girl Scout Brownie "Lego Queens." (Photo courtesy of The White House OSTP)

An all-girls app team from Resaca Middle School in Los Fresnos, Texas, designed an app that helps their visually impaired classmate navigate their school and his future high school. “Not only do these young ladies have big brains, but they’ve also got big hearts,” suggested Obama.

Inspired by his experience during Hurricane Wilma, 12-year-old Peyton Robertson, who has two patents pending, designed and prototyped lightweight “sandless sandbags” and retractable training wheels."If you can buy stock in Peyton," advised Obama, "you should do so now."

Olivia Van Amsterdam and Katelyn Sweeney, seniors from Natick High School in Mass., weren’t satisfied with just forming an all-girls robotics team. They noticed that their local firefighters often spoke of the dangers of diving in icy water on rescues, so they designed and prototyped a new device that located objects and people without risking lives. Obama placed himself in a scenario when the device might be used: "So the idea would be I've fallen through the ice and sadly I probably didn't make it, but, you know, Michelle still wants to find me.”

New York high school student Elana Simon not only beat a rare form of liver cancer, but also published a scientific paper--all before graduation! Her suggestion to one of her surgeons to begin a research study led to the discovery of a genetic mutation connected to fibrolamellar hepatocellular carcinoma. No surprise that Harvard is excited to have her this fall.

“Young people see how excited these students are about science and that their passions brought them to the White House,” shared National Science Teacher Association president Bill Badders, who was in attendance. “This kind of attention can attract other young people to explore science.” However, Badders also noted that none of these students accomplished their work on their own: parents, researchers, and other mentors provided resources to pursue their passions. “We need to find more ways to create access to mentors and facilities for all of our children, including underrepresented students,” he urged. “There are bright young minds who could accomplish similar tasks if provided the right kind of mentors and access to resources.”

Obama Announces New STEM Education Initiatives

Launched in November 2009, Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign relies on a multi-pronged, all-hands-on deck approach to broadening a more diverse STEM talent pool. His ambitious goal to move American students to the top of the pack in STEM achievement enlists the support of education, STEM professionals, government, nonprofit organizations and the business community.

At the White House STEM Science Fair, Obama announced several new Educate to Innovate initiatives:

  • An additional $35 million in grants as part of the Teacher Quality Partnership, which will fund programs that are supported by the Department of Education that train STEM teachers. Extra consideration will be given to programs that target under-represented groups for STEM teacher preparation and professional development.
  • The STEM AmeriCorps, launched at last year’s Science Fair, will expand to provide STEM learning opportunities for another 18,000 low-income students this summer including 6 Southern states. During the past year, the STEM AmeriCorps has partnered with First Robotics, US2020, Maker Education, Citizen Schools, Teach for America and other organizations.
  • As part of the Cisco-sponsored US2020 competition, seven cities (Allentown, PA; Chicago, IL; Indianapolis, IN; Research Triangle Park, NC; Philadelphia, PA; San Francisco, CA; and Wichita, KS) will be kicking off extensive mentoring programs this summer where STEM employees from local companies will connect with students in their region.
  • As part of ConnectED,Esri will provide every K-12 US school with free access to the same GIS (Geographic Information System) technology used by government and business to create maps.
  • NBC Universal will launch a new campaign to close the achievement gap in Hispanic youth by hosting over 100 screenings ofUnderwater Dreams, a documentary of 4 Latino youth who entered an underwater robotics competition and found themselves competing with students from elite schools like MIT.
  • The New York Academy of Sciences (NYAS) has partnered with Rocket21, GALXYZ, and Cisco to launch a Global STEM Alliance to connect young people from around the world, beginning with the United States, Malaysia, Australia and the city of Barcelona. As part of this initiative NYAS and Rocket21 will launch this fall Dream Big for the World, a series of real-world STEM challenges for middle and high school students.
  • Khan Academy and NASA have partnered to launch a free series of interactive lessons around launching and landing on Mars.
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