Inventions and Ideas at Obama’s Last White House Science Fair

By Jaclyn Zubrzycki — April 14, 2016 2 min read
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Si Ya “Wendy” Ni had spotted a problem: The subway in New York City seemed to be running late way more often than it should.

Wendy decided to investigate, and discovered that one factor was the accumulation of trash on subway tracks, which caused fires along the track.

Yesterday at the White House Science Fair, Wendy, Amro Halwah and Stephen Mwingira, all classmates from Baruch College Campus High School presented a potential solution: A vacuum that could travel ahead of a train and remove trash.

The Baruch College Campus students were among 40 teams that attended the science fair at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue yesterday. (Wendy is currently a freshman at Marist College; Stephen is a junior, and Amro is a senior. Their project started last year, when Wendy was a senior.)

President Barack Obama’s administration held the first White House Science Fair fair six years ago, noting that high-achieving science students deserved just as much recognition as students who succeeded in sports. This year was the last fair that will be held during Obama’s administration.

“You remind us that together, through science, we can tackle some of the biggest challenges we face,” Obama told more than 130 students gathered at the White House for the fair. “You are sharing in this essential spirit of discovery that America is built on.”

The White House has created a number of new efforts focused on K-12 science, technology, engineering, and math, including a public-private initiative to improve students’ performance in STEM fields and an effort to recruit 100,000 new STEM teachers. The U.S. Department of Education also issued a “Dear Colleague” letter about how schools and districts can access federal STEM money yesterday.

Obama toured and tested students’ projects at the fair. The online women’s blog Jezebel has a collection of photos of the President marveling at students’ science projects through the years.

The Baruch College Campus students said the project that brought them to the science fair was an opportunity to experience the creativity and perseverance that scientific endeavors can require. Their project was funded by a grant from the Lemelson-MIT InvenTeam project, and supported by teachers and mentors from a local New York energy company.

“We posed the idea to our mentors and some alumni, and they said it might not be possible,” Wendy said. But eventually, they built a prototype that effectively sucks up trash.

The students said they hoped their project would inspire other students to get involved with STEM.

“I’m hoping to inspire more young girls to join the STEM field,” Wendy said. Stephen noted that the creativity involved in creating their subway vacuum was what got him interested in STEM.

The Associated Press contributed to this story.

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