On Tuesday morning the White House State Dining Room, normally reserved for receptions, luncheons and formal dinners with visiting heads of state, was transformed into a science fair. Traditional table settings made way for displays including a mind-controlled robotic arm, solar panels modeled after tree limbs to more efficiently collect energy, a helmet designed to protect soldiers from traumatic brain injuries and model rockets — all from student winners of science competitions across the country.
During an East Room ceremony after he'd perused the work of 100 elementary and high school students, President Obama said that the nation's scientists, engineers and inventors deserve the same attention as professional athletes. "If we invite the team that wins the Super Bowl to the White House, we need to invite some science-fair winners to the White House as well," he said before an audience of students, teachers and prominent science professionals including NASA Administrator Charles Bolden, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Bill Nye the Science Guy.
"It's young people like you that make me so confident that America's best days are still to come," the president continued. "You're making sure we have the best, smartest, most skilled workers in the world so that the jobs and industries of tomorrow take root right here." He also announced a new $22 million fund from businesses and philanthropic organizations, including Google and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to help train 100,000 new math and science teachers. The president's upcoming budget will invest an additional $80 million for STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) teacher-preparation programs.
"That's the most important investment we can make," Lisa Jackson told The Root while reviewing a lunch box that sanitizes food with UV light, invented by two African-American sixth-grade girls, Ma'Kese Wesley and Isis Thompson from Kansas City, Mo. "I'm so thrilled to see so many young girls here because it means that the profession is changing; it's becoming a place where women have an equal voice and equal footing. And for students of color, it's important that people like Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson are here today so that they see role models that make this accessible to them."
Among other students who displayed their work at the White House was a team of eighth-graders from Detroit who designed a model of their city largely fueled by hydroelectricity, geothermal and solar power; and eighth-graders from Monroeville, Ala., who designed and built an award-winning, insect-catching robot as part of the Friends of BEST program, which works to expand STEM-education opportunities in the Alabama Black Belt.
"I love putting things together and taking them apart," said Titus Walker, 13, of the Alabama robotics team. "It's so much fun, and now that there's a robotics program at my school, I can actually show myself and others how well I can do all this stuff."
Cynthia Gordy is The Root's Washington reporter.