Not many teenagers get to sit in the first lady's box during the State of the Union address. Then again, not many teenagers build electric cars after school.
Brandon Ford, 18, is a member of Hybrid X, a student organization at West Philadelphia High School dedicated to innovative car engineering. When President Barack Obama said, "We need to out-innovate, out-educate and out-build the rest of the world," during his 2011 State of the Union address, he was talking about the innovative spirit shown by Hybrid X.
Last year Ford and the team submitted two hybrid cars in the Progressive Automotive X Prize competition, which requires entrants to present production-ready, fuel-efficient vehicles. The inner-city high school students outlasted global competitors from automotive corporations and prestigious universities, a feat that caught the attention of President Obama.
When the Hybrid X team was invited to the White House last fall, however, Ford forgot his ID and wasn't allowed past security. His luck changed with a second chance in January, when he scored a personal invitation to the State of the Union. Here, the first honoree in The Root's Young Futurist series talks about his tech obsession, meeting the president and being ahead of the car-industry curve.
TR: What sparked your interest in science?
BF: Since I was a little kid, I've liked learning about space and robotics, and today everything's about technology. You have to know about computers and science just to keep up, so I learn about every new gadget that comes out, like iPods and iPhones. But I like staying on top of upgraded technology in general.
TR: In the X Prize competition, your team went head-to-head with corporations and universities. Were you intimidated?
BF: The team had been doing the X Prize for years before I even joined, so by the time I got there, it was just a regular thing to do. We didn't go in really expecting to win, but we [showed] that an inner-city high school can compete with major corporations and universities. We made it past the preliminary and middle rounds and didn't get knocked out until the final stretch, so we felt very honored.
TR: On your first go-round to the White House, when you forgot your ID, what did you do while everyone else met Obama?
BF: A camera crew came with us to tape footage, and I just stayed with them. We went to a restaurant and waited for the team to come out. My teammates tried to say, "It's OK; it's not really that bad," but I was a little bit sad. I kept thinking about it for a while afterward, but then, you know, I had to keep going on with my life.
The White House called me about four months later. My team leader actually texted me first and said she had something "very urgent" to tell me. Then President Obama's adviser for science and technology called my cell phone and said I'd been cordially invited to the White House. I ran downstairs and told my mom, and she was very happy. I called my team leader, and she was excited, too.
TR: What did you discuss with the president and first lady when you met them?
BF: They just wanted to know about the Hybrid X team — what we do and what we've accomplished. The president asked me which team I'd be rooting for in the Super Bowl. I said the Eagles, but since they aren't in the playoffs, he asked me who I wanted to win after that: Pittsburgh or Green Bay. I said Pittsburgh. We didn't have that much time with him, though, because he had a lot of things to do.
TR: Why do fuel-efficient cars, and green technology in general, matter?
BF: For one thing, it puts less stress on the environment, and that will help sustain ourselves longer as a human race. I'm happy to be a little part of that, of helping make the whole world better in the long run, instead of one corner of it. We're going to all have electric cars eventually, so this field of automotives will produce more jobs, too. It has a positive effect on both the economy and the environment.
TR: What did you think of President Obama's State of the Union message, about investing in green technologies?
BF: I wholeheartedly agree with that. If the country works hard to produce new technology, then we can be one of the front-runners in the world.
TR: What advice would you give other young people interested in science and technology?
BF: Do what you love, and work as hard as you can to get where you need to be. I would also encourage them to take advantage of opportunities. The Hybrid X team is always in competition. We just entered the Spirit of Innovation, which is kind of like a national science fair, with a proposal for a new electric car. We're always seeking opportunities and trying to better ourselves.
TR: What do you see yourself doing in the future?
BF: I'm thinking science or technology; maybe something in the medical field. I'm still trying to figure my future out, but definitely college.
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.