Charles Bolden, administrator of NASA, listens to Shimeeka Stanley, 15, of the U.S. Virgin Islands explain the group’s science presentation during the White House Science Fair at the White House Monday, March 23, 2015, in Washington, D.C.
Nicole L. Cvetnic/The Root

The lack of gender and ethnic diversity in the science, technology, engineering and math fields is not a secret—and the 2015 White House Science Fair’s main focus was on just that. The fair, held on Monday, included students from underrepresented backgrounds who could be the next generation of innovators.

“We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM. We want to make sure everybody is involved. We want to increase the diversity of STEM programs as well,” President Barack Obama said during his remarks at the fifth installment of the event. “That means reaching out to boys and girls, men and women, of all races and all backgrounds. Science is for all of us. And we want our classrooms and labs and workplaces and media to reflect that.”

Advertisement

It’s an effort that didn’t go unnoticed. Of the three dozen or so projects that were exhibited at the White House, several were created by young girls and children of color. There was even a team that came all the way from the U.S. Virgin Islands.

“Everybody needs an opportunity to go into STEM and learn and expose themselves to such an amazing field,” Stephanie Bullock, 16, team captain of that five-person crew, told The Root. The team designs rockets for the Team America Rocketry Challenge.

The president, as part of his Educate to Innovate campaign, also announced $240 million in new private-sector commitments to encourage and prep young girls and boys, particularly those from underrepresented groups, to help them shine in STEM fields.

Advertisement

That potential is apparent in kids like those from the Village, a division of the Atlanta Children’s Foundation, who showed off their robot, which can lift and carry items. The Village is a support system for displaced, abused and neglected children. It targets children who have been in the foster-care system—a situation that is supposed to be temporary—for more than two years, Robert Willis, executive director of the foundation, explained.

Now these same children are headed to the GeorgiaFIRST Robotics Peachtree Regional. They have been working on a robot on-site at Johnson Research & Development Co. under the mentorship of none other than Super Soaker inventor, and company president and founder, Lonnie Johnson.

“Our robot is able to lift this container and follow the theme this year, which was ‘Recycle Rush.’ It’s about recycling materials. In this case the robot is recycling the lives of these kids,” Willis said. “It is about taking something that people have basically discarded—they’ve either abandoned them or neglected them. And so, through this robotics program, we’ve been able to take kids’ lives, bring them together, and [now] they’re here in the White House.”

“There are not that many black people doing science and stuff … but it’s actually fun when you try it,” Johnny Manuel, 18, a member of the team, said. “[You have to] keep trying, push yourself to the fullest and never give up.”

And really, that’s the mantra that many of these young people often go back to when a future in STEM, when innovation and creation, just doesn’t seem possible: Try everything and push, no matter what and no matter who tells you no.

Advertisement

“You cannot give up. There are so many people waiting to see you fail that naturally you have to succeed. Don’t listen to people who tell you that you can’t do something, because I have heard many ‘noes’ in my lifetime,” 17-year-old Tiye Garrett-Mills from Denver, who worked on a solo project on leaf imagery, said.

“I actually had one of my teachers ask me why I was in advanced classes, why I didn’t drop out,” she continued. “I clearly didn’t belong there. The thing is, it hurts, but … you have to let that fuel you, you can’t let that stop you, because you can achieve amazing things. Two years ago I would not have thought this was possible. But I just shook hands with the president today. I just explained my science-fair project to Barack Obama, and that’s because I didn’t let people stop me.”

Breanna Edwards is a newswriter at The Root. Follow her on Twitter.