President Barack Obama vowed early in his tenure to make science “cool” and decorated the Oval Office with patent models of groundbreaking American inventions.
But to truly understand Obama’s zeal for all things scientific and technological, one must take a spin with him around the White House Science Fair, a tradition he began in 2010 and hosted for the final time Wednesday.
“There are a lot of good things about being president,” Obama said in the White House’s ornate East Room, surrounded by youngsters who brought their creations – robots, spacecraft, toys made from 3-D printers. “But some of the best moments that I have had as president have involved science and our annual science fair.”
Across the hall in the State Dining Room, the president awarded congratulatory fist-bumps, the closest this particular fair gets to a blue ribbon, to a pair of sisters from Seattle who launched a spacecraft adorned with tracking devices, cameras and a picture of their late cat Loki 78,000 feet into the air.
“That’s crazy,” Obama told Kimberly Yeung, 9, and her sister Rebecca, 11. “Your gizmo was that high?”
The president pulled the lever of an ocean energy generator built by a ninth-grader from Florida to help a pen-pal in an Ethiopian village get access to electricity.
Obama marveled at the ingenuity of another ninth-grader who developed a less expensive, faster test for Ebola. “What were you doing in high school?” he said during his remarks to reporters, adding that his only problem with the science fair was “it makes me feel a little inadequate.”
Others exhibiting included Olivia Thomas, 18, a senior at Idaho Virtual Academy with a passion for creating video games that teach rather than just entertain. Boise High School senior Nate Marshall brought research showing that the Earth endured a huge release of carbon dioxide — the component blamed for the Earth’s warming today — millions of years ago.
This year’s event was bittersweet for Obama, who announced programs that will carry his administration’s emphasis on science education into the future, beyond his presidency, and welcomed alumni of science fairs past. “How’s Harvard?” he asked one, Elana Simon, who studied her own cancer to try to develop a cure.
The White House announced Wednesday that Oracle, the computer technology company, would invest $200 million for computer science education for young Americans over the next 18 months, as part of Obama’s “C.S. for All” initiative. And the Department of Education will issue new guidelines to states and school districts on how they can use federal money to enhance science, technology, engineering and math – or STEM – education.
“I’m a big science guy,” Obama told the Science Channel in a brief video that aired Monday, part of a week of roughly minute-long appearances he taped for the network.
For a day each year since Obama began the tradition, the state floor of the White House is transformed into a veritable geek paradise of projects that resembles countless school and regional science fairs in far less glamorous locales, complete with poster-board displays of findings with graphics and diagrams, colorful models and young people eager to show off their creations.
Obama has fired a giant marshmallow cannon invented by a 14-year-old and been charmed by 6-year-old Oklahoma Girl Scouts dressed in Superman capes who showed off their prototype for a mechanical page-turner constructed with Legos. (They were all back at the White House on Wednesday.)
Last year, he invited Ahmed Mohamed, a Muslim high schooler from Texas who had been arrested after teachers mistook a clock he invented for a bomb. “Cool clock, Ahmed,” Obama said at the time from his newly minted Twitter account, @POTUS. “Want to bring it to the White House?”
White House officials say the fairs have drawn some 450 students in kindergarten through 12th grade; this year’s was the largest, with 130 attendees.
The event gives Obama a chance to showcase his commitment to STEM education, a push his advisers say has paid off during his term. There are 25,000 more students graduating in those fields than there were in 2009, when Obama took office, the White House said.
Through Obama’s Educate to Innovate program, he has spurred more than $1 billion in private investment for improving STEM education, officials said. The administration is more than halfway to the goal he set of training 100,000 STEM educators by 2020.
Obama has also incorporated innovation into his policymaking process and the way the White House communicates his message, building an Office of Digital Strategy to manage a suite of social media platforms and naming the first chief technology officer.
He started an initiative in precision medicine to find ways of using Big Data and genomics to cure diseases and he has had money poured into clean energy research to combat climate change.
“I have just been able to see the unbelievable ingenuity and passion and curiosity and brainpower of America’s next generation, and all the cool things that they do,” Obama told this year’s fair exhibitors, joking that he would one day take credit for future cancer cures or clean energy innovations they pioneered.
“I'll say, ‘If it hadn’t been for the White House Science Fair, who knows what might have happened?’” Obama said.
The Idaho Statesman contributed.