The White House Science Fair

In February of this year the White House put on a science fair. The aim was to showcase inventions and ideas from entrepreneurial youngsters in a bid to motivate children towards the STEM subjects – that’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Math.

Let’s get one thing clear: these kids are amazing. Truly amazing. They show that there’s so much imagination, innovation and skill hiding within a part of the population we usually consider less capable, less knowledgeable. The general way many approach science, or indeed any field of adult life, is that the more credentials you have, the better suited you are for finding a solution. But innovation doesn’t work that way. It can come from any area, and sometimes the most unlikely candidates yield the best results.

And these kids will certainly surprise you.

“Sheesh, that’s pretty impressive,” Obama commented upon seeing the demo of an environmental-themed game that a young girl from Leominster designed. This fifth grader took only two months to design the game, in a fine display of the kind of tinkering that many children across the world do, often unbeknownst to their parents who pass it off as “that video game stuff kids like.”

His next destination among the exhibits was a teenager from Cupertino named Angela Zhang. Fed up with current cancer treatments that cannot target the source of the cancer and also affect normals cells in the process, she created a nano particle that can detect cancer stem cells and destroy them. She’s only 17, she’s clocked up more than a thousand hours working on this project and she recently won $100k for it in the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology. She really needs her own article so I’ll leave this to the side for now. Needless to say, the President was impressed.

Another stunning exhibit comes from Marian Bechtel, a junior high student from Lancaster, PA, who has developed a method of detecting buried landmines. She actually remained an extra day at the White House to give a presentation at a Global Development conference. The following month she ended up being a finalist in the Intel Science Talent Search.

There were many more stunning inventions, many of which are summed up in this video from the White House’s Youtube channel: Girls in STEM: A New Generation of Women In Science.

“I’m going to make a special plea to the press, not just the folks who are here, but also your editors:  Give this some attention,” Barack Obama said as he urged the press to take the event seriously.

What Obama actually plans to do for the improvement of STEM subjects became apparent in his budget proposal, made not long after this science fair event, which includes $80 million to be spent on activities, events and competitions to get children more involved in science, and to aid teachers.

The Educate to Innovate project was launched recently by the White House. It promotes a strong, positive message for the STEM subjects (along with some nice uplifting background music). Congress has even considered setting up a STEM office in the Department of Education.

Michelle Obama, too, has lobbied for the American Association of Women Scientists in recent years. So it seems that both the Obamas are strongly in favour of promoting the STEM subjects. It’s an issue made especially important, what with the futures of their two young girls in mind.

The aim to train 100,000 teachers and gain a million new students over the next decade might seem unrealistic to some, but the fact it is being considered to such a degree, even if we are unsure of how it will actually be implemented, is overwhelmingly positive. If anything else, the US is certainly doing better than the UK so far, which has already lost all Government funding for the UKRC and WISE, the two most prominent bodies for both STEM subjects and promoting women in science.

Historically, the US has been forward-thinking in getting women into science – it was as early as 1873 that the first science degree was awarded to a woman here, whereas ancient UK institutions such as Cambridge did not award degrees to women until the 1940’s.

There truly is a lot of innovation hiding out there, and I bet there’s more lying dormant in the minds of kids who haven’t quite gotten the message yet, that they can find the freedom to forge their ideas, and hopefully the Obama administration will continue aiding young children to achieve this.

One of my favourite exhibits from the event was the Extreme Marshmallow Cannon. Just one look at Obama’s amazed and excited face as he joins the cannon’s inventor, 14-year old Joey Hudy, in testing the device, displays the enthusiasm and encouragement we need to get more youngsters heading towards the sciences. There’s even a .gif of the “moment of surprise” that even Obama’s official campaign tumblr has reblogged.

It’s a clear enough message – this stuff is cool, and it’s not merely okay to be doing it, it’s awesome.

 

Image copyright Reuters.


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