(The Root) — When President Obama announced the first-ever White House Science Fair back in 2009, he said, "If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you've produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too."
Nineteen-year-old Chicago native Anthony Halmon was among the 100 students from more than 40 states (pdf) who received that recognition at a daylong celebration of the power and potential of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) education at the fourth-annual event on Monday.
But in Halmon's case, the fair also marked a celebration of what he calls his "transition" — from a life in Chicago that could have gone the way of the worst headlines about the plight of young black men in the city, to participation in the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship program, to a handshake from the president and a full ride to Cornell University, where he'll go in the fall.
The Root caught up with Halmon and learned that the creation that earned him a spot at the fair — a pacifier with a built-in thermometer and soothing gel — is far from the young father's only victory.
The Root: What inspired your invention?
Anthony Halmon: My invention is called the Thermofier. It's a pacifier with a built-in thermometer. What inspired my business was seeing kids around me being so sick and seeing parents spend so much on their kids' health without really knowing why they were sick. But really, it was that I have a daughter, who's 3. She used to always get sick when the seasons would change. In the NFTE program, my teacher got me thinking about what I could create to meet her needs. At first I thought [the Thermofier] was impossible to make, but NFTE got me working with some engineers to create it.
TR: When did you become interested in science?
AH: I would say I had a little interest in science when I started an environmental science class my sophomore year, but NFTE showed me a way to take my strongest subject, which is math, and use it in the science field as well. That really made me want to become interested in science.
TR: Your biography says you had a difficult childhood growing up in Chicago. How did you overcome that?
AH: My freshman year, my father was in jail, so I used to go around with my cousins a lot and get involved with fighting, and things that weren't really me, but I felt like it was the only way to live. I was living, not dreaming. Just existing. My grades were dropping.
In October 2010, my father passed away, and I felt like there was no purpose in life, but I had a realization. I had to sit down and talk to myself, and I talked to my pastor. He nurtured me and raised me like I was his own son. That was my transition. Ever since then, my grades started improving. I started saying, I can do better and I can be better, because in the end anything that happens is because of the choices I made.
TR: What was the highlight of participating in the White House Science Fair?
AH: When they first told me, I didn't believe it, because I never pictured myself actually being at the White House. It was just amazing because I realized there are more people like me out there, people my age and even younger.
TR: Did President Obama say anything that stood out to you today?
AH: He just said hello, and we shook hands, but the eloquence of his speech that he spoke today — I'm pretty sure it reached everybody in that room. He was saying we're basically the chosen generation that will help shape the future with our ideas … and maybe we can use science to help create the change we want to see.