President Barack Obama hosted the sixth and final White House Science Fair of his administration Wednesday, marking the largest fair to date with more than 130 student winners and competitors from across the country.
The White House welcomed students from science, technology, engineering and math competitions across the country, as well as previous science fair participants. Obama launched the first science fair in 2010 as part of his “Educate to Innovate” campaign, which seeks to improve American students’ scientific and mathematic achievement.
The fair was streamed live online on the White House official website. According to a statement released by the White House, Obama sought to honor youth comprising the next generation of scientists, engineers, mathematicians and innovators.
“As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners,” Obama said. “Because superstar biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot-builders… they’re what’s going to transform our society. They’re the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases and new sources of energy, and help us build healthier, more successful societies.”
The event began with a video message from NASA Space Station Commander Tim Kopra and his crewmate Jeff Williams from inside the International Space Station.
“It is you, the students of today, who will be instrumental in achieving some of our nation’s biggest goals of the future, including bringing the first men and women to the surface of Mars,” Kopra said.
The majority of the participants set their projects up on the White House lawn where attendees mingled and viewed the exhibits.
Senior Policy Advisor for the Science Division of the White House Knatokie Ford, American fashion model and creator of “Kode with Karlie” Karlie Kloss and “Black-ish” sitcom star and STEM advocate Yara Shahidi conducted interviews with fair participants on the lawn.
One of the students, 17-year-old Olivia Hallisey of Greenwich, Ct., developed the Ebola Assay card, a temperature independent, portable and inexpensive test for the detection of the Ebola virus that provides results in less than thirty minutes.
Hallisey said her intent is to use her project to help those in countries afflicted by Ebola.
“I wanted to find ways to limit the spread and the best way to do that was through diagnostic tools,” Hallisey said. “My goal is to have this test be used in the field and have it actually help people because that was really my end goal from the beginning.”
The event also incorporated a discussion with alumni of the White House Science Fair, including Amy Chyao, Joey Hudy, Kiona Elliot, Payton Karr, Elana Simon and Karissa Cheng. Senior Advisor to President Barack Obama and chair of the White House Council on Women and Girls Valerie Jarrett led the discussion.
In the discussion, Jarrett stressed the importance of integrating more females into STEM fields.
“Only 22 percent of students in AP computer science are women.13 percent are African American and Latina girls. Only 37 percent of the STEM graduates from college are women. For careers in STEM, only 28 percent are women,” Jarrett said. “If we increase the number of teachers and are able to put the spotlight at a young age, then we are going to be able to build some momentum and balance it out, because we know that many of the high-growth jobs of the future are in STEM.”
After the panel, Obama viewed selected science projects from the fair and spoke with the participants about their findings.
15-year-old Hannah Herbest presented her ocean-energy probe prototype, BEACON, which she created to provide a source of power through untapped ocean current energy to her nine-year pen pal, Ruth, who lives in Ethiopia.
“In the future, I’m going to replace the lights with batteries so that Ruth can have charged batteries to use to study by at night, or use for medical supplies, water osmosis pumps to generate freshwater: theoretically, anything you could imagine,” Herbest said.
After viewing the projects, Obama addressed the fair attendees, highlighting some of the specific projects and experimenters. He specifically mentioned 9-year-old Jacob Leggette of Baltimore, Md., who created toys and games using 3D printers and dreams of creating artificial organs in the future.
Obama applauded Leggette for his ingenuity, citing a personal suggestion the young inventor made to him.
“Jacob had a great idea that, in addition to my science advisory group, we should have a kids advisory group, that starts explaining to us what’s interesting to them and what’s working and that could help us shape advances in STEM education,” Obama said. “Way to go Jacob, we’re going to follow up on that.”
Throughout his speech, the president called for a transformation in the way people perceive science, encouraging them to view it as both accessible and fundamental to education and progress.
“Science isn’t for the few — it’s for the many as long as it’s something we are weaving into our curriculum and it’s something we value as a society,” Obama said.
In particular, Obama stressed the need for more women and minority groups involved in STEM, specifically in regards to recent efforts to expand computer science education.
The president also discussed the growing community of education, business and nonprofit leaders who are responding to the call in his State of the Union Address to harness technology in efforts to address global issues.
“Together, through science, we can tackle some of the biggest challenges that we face,” Obama said. “Whether you’re fighting cancer, combatting climate change, feeding the world, writing code that leads to social change, you are sharing in this essential spirit of discovery that America’s built on.”
Obama concluded by expressing amazement at the accomplishments of the science fair participants and emphasized the pivotal contributions they are making to the United States as a whole.
“By following the trail of your curiosity wherever it takes you, you are continually adding to this body of knowledge that helps make us a more secure, more prosperous, and more hopeful society,” Obama said. “Science has always been the hallmark of American progress.”