FYI: The AIP Bulletin of Science Policy News

President Obama Invites Science Competition Winners to the White House

Aline D. McNaull
Number 17 - February 8, 2012  |  Search FYI  |   FYI Archives  |   Subscribe to FYI

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“The belief that we belong on the cutting edge of innovation – that’s an idea as old as America itself.” – President Barack Obama

“We know that innovation has helped each generation pass down that basic American promise, which is no matter who you are, no matter where you come from, you can make it if you try.  So there’s nothing more important than keeping that promise alive for the next generation.” – President Obama

Yesterday, President Obama welcomed over 100 student winners of science fairs from across the country to the second White House Science Fair.  The students came from over 45 states, and represented over 40 different competitions in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). 

Present at the science fair were senior administration officials including John Holdren, Suba Suresh, Lisa Jackson, Charles Bolden, Jane Lubchenco, Patrick Gallagher, Carl Wieman, Stephen VanRoekel, and Harold Varmus.  These officials, as well as astronauts and scientists in attendance, were able to mingle and chat with students over the course of the morning. 

At the fair, more than 30 student teams had the opportunity to exhibit projects throughout the first floor of the White House; this is almost twice as many teams as were present at the first White House Science Fair held in late 2010.  Many of the projects were aimed at solving problems students saw in their own communities.  There was an interactive robot designed by Benjamin Hylak of West Grove, Pennsylvania which could move around a senior center allowing seniors to connect via Skype with their families and friends combatting loneliness.  A sanitizing lunchbox was designed by sixth graders in Kansas City, Missouri, to kill bacteria on food found in their lunches.  Winners of the FIRST LEGO League competition demonstrated their prosthetic hand device which enabled a young girl, born without fingers, to write.  Each student presented their project with enthusiasm and an excellent understanding of the technology but also with a sense of drive to find solutions to the problems they were solving. 

In his speech, the President highlighted the struggle that some students faced to get there.  Samantha Garvey, semifinalist of the Intel Science Talent Search, learned of her placement in that competition while living in a homeless shelter.  A winning rocketry team from Presidio, Texas attends school in the fourth-poorest district in the state and needed supporters to help with raffles and bake sales in order to enter in their competition.  In the Red Room at the White House, these students eloquently described their rocket design and proposed questions that government scientists need to consider when designing rockets. 

The President truly seemed to enjoy the exhibits, exclaiming that he “fired a marshmallow cannon in the State Dining Room.”  He expressed enthusiasm for science and pointed out that “if we are recognizing athletic achievement, then we should also be recognizing academic achievement and science achievement.  If we invite the team that wins the Super Bowl to the White House, then we need to invite some science fair winners to the White House as well.”

He further expressed his gratitude and support for teachers.  “Every one of you can think of a teacher, or maybe a couple of teachers, without whom you would not be here.  So I want you to promise that the next time you see those teachers, that you give them a big thank you, not just for yourself but also from me.  Because teachers matter.  They deserve our support.  And I want to make sure that we are constantly lifting up how important teachers are to making sure that not only you succeed, but this country succeeds.”

This science fair compliments the President’s Educate to Innovate campaign intended to inspire students to excel in math and science.  President Obama’s speech at the science fair highlighted key steps that the Administration is taking to help more students excel in STEM fields. 

President Obama “called for an all-hands-on-deck approach to science, math, technology, and engineering.  Let’s train more teachers.  Let’s get more kids studying these subjects.  Let’s make sure these fields get the respect and attention that they deserve.”

His initiative introduced in today’s speech is the establishment of programs “to help prepare new math and science teachers, and to meet an ambitious goal, which is 1 million more American graduates in science, technology, engineering and math over the next 10 years.”

The President also announced key additional steps that the Administration and its partners are taking to prepare 100,000 effective math and science teachers to meet the urgent need to train the one million additional graduates over the next decade. 

Key steps to increase the number of STEM teachers include: a new $80 million investment to help prepare effective STEM teachers in the upcoming budget; a new $22 million investment from the philanthropic and private sector; a STEM focus in the upcoming Race to the Top competition; and new policies to recruit, support, retain and reward excellent STEM teachers. 

Key steps that were announced to meet the need for 1 million more STEM graduates include: a priority on undergraduate STEM education reform in the President’s upcoming budget including $100 million in investment by the National Science Foundation, and a new K-16 education initiative jointly administered by the Department of Education and the National Science Foundation. 

The President has called on companies and foundations to get involved in this initiative as well.  Private sector commitments currently include the expansion of CEO-led coalition Change the Equation to increase high-quality STEM programs to over 130 new sites, a new campaign with Time Warner Cable to get students excited about the future and about science, expanding the pipeline of STEM students to college though programs like the Posse Foundation which brings under-represented urban students to college and helps them graduate, and the launch of science after school programs such as Cognizant’s “Making the Future” Program.

His speech ended with an eloquent plea to the press to “give this some attention.  I mean, this is the kind of stuff, what these young people are doing, that’s going to make a bigger difference in the life of our country over the long term than just about anything.  And it doesn’t belong of the back pages of a newspaper; we’ve got to lift this up.  We’ve got to emphasize how important this is and recognize these incredible young people.”

Yesterday afternoon, following the White House Science Fair, President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology released a report on undergraduate STEM education which will be the subject of a future FYI.   

Aline D. McNaull
Government Relations Division
American Institute of Physics