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White House Science Fair

The White House held its 3rd annual Science Fair yesterday Monday, which, in the words of the Washington Post, was "designed to call attention to the importance of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and to honor the innovations dreamed up by young minds."

The projects the young inventors have worked on include:

  • building cheaper robotic arms,
  • cool pads to prevent dehydration on the football field,
  • using the computing cloud to combat breast cancer (Grand Prize at the Google Science Fair),
  • a drawing robot that paints watercolors,
  • a pedal-powered emergency water sanitation system,
  • a Offshore Rip Current Alert System (a buoy that alerts swimmers of dangerous conditions in the water, and a 2012 Lemelson-MIT program InvenTeam),
  • a launch rocket that propels eggs to a certain altitude and returns them to earth unbroken in less than a minute,
  • a non-pharmaceutical remedy for sleeplessness in senior citizens,
  • turning biomass waste products (such as banana peels) into a viable wood alternative for cooking - part of the winning team of Siemens We Can Change the World challenge,
  • innovative urban water management (Future City National Award for Best Management of Water Resources),
  • connecting high school students with underprivileged youth through collaborative hands-on science experiments,
  • a robot mimicking space elevators, 1st Place Robot Award for this BEST Robotics team.

I was struck, but not surprised, by some of the students' quotes in the Washington Post:

  1. Student who created a cheap prosthetic arm: "I’m all self-taught. School is basically a waste of time. I’d be better off with those seven hours if I could just use them working on my own."
  2. Student who studied algae as a biofuel: "My school really doesn’t do anything with this." The journalist continues: "When it comes to science, too many schools stress formulas and memorization, instead of encouraging creative thought, she said."
  3. In addition, "Many students at the science fair said they created their projects outside of school, teaching themselves the science involved or seeking out mentors in the community or at universities." (Emphasis mine.)

I can't help but think that many innovative high school students are terribly underappreciated, skill-wise, and underchallenged in school and even in college - especially college underclassmen. By the time the "fun" electives and capstone projects come around, junior and senior year, how many of those talented students will have lost their interest in using their skills to make a difference?

You can find the full list of student participants here. The fact that not all 50 states were represented did bother me a whole lot. Here is a quick list of the states that had students exhibiting their work at the White House Science Fair: Colorado, Georgia, Florida, California, Michigan, Tennessee, New Mexico, New Jersey, Oregon, Alabama, Illinois, North Dakota, Idaho, Texas, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island, Maryland, North Carolina, Indiana, Virginia. (That's a total of 21 states, some having sent multiple students.)

Additional states were represented because student winners of regional competition had been invited as well, but I can't understand why the organizers didn't insist on having a student from every state, for instance the winner of the statewide high school science competition. This would allow strong local PR focusing on the local student honorees.

The White House's webpage has a 35-min video of President Obama touring the Science Fair here. The video would be far more powerful if it'd been broken into segments (uploaded separately) featuring the various students, but it still gives a good sense of the amazing innovations young scientists can come up with, and their pride at describing their inventions to the President.

New commitments to the President's Educate to Innovate campaign were announced in conjunction with the Science Fair and include (but are not limited to):

  • a new AmeriCorps track focused on STEM education: "This effort [called STEM AmeriCorps] will place national service members in nonprofits that mobilize STEM professionals to inspire young people to excel in STEM education." This will include placing "50 AmeriCorps VISTA members across the country to build the capacity of FIRST, a nonprofit organization that sponsors robotics competitions and other tech challenges... to connect more low-income children with FIRST’s exciting competitions."
  • Multi-year STEM mentoring campaign – US2020 – to get many more companies to commit their science and technology workforce to STEM volunteering: "ten leading education non-profits and U.S. technology companies, including Fortune 500 firms SanDisk, Cognizant, and Cisco are launching US2020, an all-hands-on-deck effort to have many more STEM professionals mentor children from kindergarten through college. US2020 aims to make mentoring the new normal in the STEM professions in the same way that pro-bono work is common in the legal profession.

Also check out this answer sheet from the Washington Post.

I'd love to hear what the students invited to the 1st Science Fair have become. Given the enthusiasm they displayed during their visit to the White House and the honor brought upon them by the trip, they're the students we don't want to draw away from science and engineering. Because if we can't keep them excited about STEM, we can't keep anyone. 

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