At White House Astronomy Night, Obama Touts STEM Education (and Mars)

By Liana Loewus — October 20, 2015 2 min read
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Last night, several hundred “space buffs,” including students, teachers, and astronauts, gathered on the White House’s South Lawn for an evening of stargazing.

President Obama opened his second astronomy night, the first of which was in 2009, with a speech touting his administration’s efforts to improve science, technology, engineering, and math education.

“We are halfway to my goal of training 100,000 new STEM teachers by the end of the decade,” he said. “We’re on track to connect 99 percent of our students to high-speed Internet before the end of the decade. And over the past six years, our “Educate to Innovate” campaign has raised $1 billion to support STEM programs nationwide, including 80 other Astronomy Nights happening right now, all across the country.”

During the speech, the president recognized several young scientists, including Pranav Sivakumar, a two-time global finalist in the Google Science Fair for his astrophysics research. Pranav is a junior at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a residential public high school that serves talented math and science students.

Ahmed Mohamed, the 14-year-old student from Irving, Texas, who was arrested after school officials said the clock he built looked like a bomb, was also in attendance. (My colleague Evie Blad has more on how Ahmed’s visit has stirred conversations about school discipline.)

The president also talked up NASA’s recent accomplishments. The agency mapped Pluto with photos from its New Horizons space probe and announced last month it had evidence there’s flowing water on Mars. “And today, NASA is developing the capabilities to send humans to Mars in the 2030s,” the president said. “That means that some of the young people who are here tonight might be working on that project. Some of you might be on your way to Mars.”

As I’ve written, Mars has captured the public’s interest recently for several reasons, not the least of which is the release of the science-fiction film “The Martian.” The movie is based on a book by Andy Weir, who told me in an interview that the story has a lot of application in STEM classrooms.

Image: President Barack Obama, right, looks up at the moon as he talks with Agatha Sofia Alvarez-Bareiro, left, a high school senior from the Brooklyn borough of New York, at the second-ever White House Astronomy Night on the South Lawn of the White House on Oct. 19.

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.