Education

Two Boise kids taking their science and tech savvy to White House

Olivia Thomas sees a future for herself creating video games that can help others learn.
Olivia Thomas sees a future for herself creating video games that can help others learn. Provided by Olivia Thomas

Olivia Thomas, an 18-year-old senior at Idaho Virtual Academy, loves creating video games. In July, she won a national award for a game she wrote.

Nate Marshall, a 17-year-old Boise High School senior, has inspected 55 million-year-old marine sediment and come up with some startling ideas on what it means for 21st century climate change.

What do these two have in common? Both are taking their love of science and technology to the 2016 White House Science Fair on Wednesday. Along with more than 100 other students, they hope to present their findings and creations to President Barack Obama.

OLIVIA THOMAS: LOTS OF IDEAS

“I think being able to have the White House on your resume is pretty amazing,” said Thomas, who learned she’d be going to the fair only a few days ago.

“The president is going to be there. He might be able to play my game as well.”

Her passion for contests turned into a love for video games at age 9. Next year it will lead her to Boise State University, where she is planning a double major in computer science and the new College of Innovation and Design’s major in gaming, interactive media and mobile technology. She wants to build games that are instructional and have learning elements.

Using different platforms, she’s invented about 60 games, many of them Nancy Drew-style mysteries. “I’ve done a lot of adventure games,” she said. Her head is packed with stories she wants to put into computer games.

“I made one treasure hunt,” she said. “The players had to go into cases ... to find the treasures.”

Then she got the idea for a game she called “Colorless.” Players learn that certain color blocks have special functions, she said, but when the colors fade players have “to use clues to help them get through the last level.”

Last year she entered her game in the National STEM Video Challenge, and was named one of the winners. “Her game was so interesting,” said Catherine Jhee, a spokesman for Joan Ganz Cooney Center in New York that helps run the challenge. The challenge recommended Thomas and some other entrants for the White House Science Fair.

And even as she prepared to be in the fair, her mind keeps tossing around ideas: “I always wanted to make a history game, something with time travel,” she said. Or a game to help kids solve algebraic equation. Or...

NATE MARSHALL: NATURALLY CURIOUS

There is both hopeful and disconcerting news is what Nate Marshall’s been learning about climate change.

During the summer of his junior year, Marshall traveled to the University of California, Santa Cruz to study cores of sediment millions of years old. What he discovered is that the Earth endured a huge release of carbon dioxide — the component blamed for the Earth’s warming today — millions of years ago that dwarfed what’s been released since the industrial revolution started pumping the stuff into the atmosphere in the early 1800s.

The good news: The Earth survived. The disconcerting news: If the Earth continues to warm, it could unleash another massive release of carbon dioxide. This time, it would come on top of what man has already done, Marshall theorizes.

“If we don’t reduce carbon dioxide emissions, it could get much worse,” he said.

He presented his research at the Intel Science Talent Search in March and won third place in the category of Global Good, which came with a $35,000 award.

He doesn’t know how he was selected to the science fair, he said, but a few days ago he got a call from Intel telling him he was going.

Marshall’s journey to the White House began as a kid. “I have been curious,” Marshall said. “I did have a rock collection. I was always interested in geology.”

Marshall isn’t afraid to ask questions, said Erin Galinato, an advanced-placement science teacher at Boise High School. “He’s just got that brain that ... processes information,” she said. “He makes connections.”

After graduating from high school, Marshall is considering attending Northeastern University, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology or Stanford University in the fall.

Watch the White House Science Fair

The White House Science Fair will be streamed live at 12:15 p.m. MDT Wednesday at whitehouse.gov/live.

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