President Obama Welcomes Students to White House for 5th Annual Science Fair

By Liana Loewus — March 23, 2015 3 min read
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Today, in what President Barack Obama called one of the “most fun” events of the year, dozens of students from around the country showcased their experiments and inventions at the fifth annual White House science fair.

The student presenters, many of whom had won previous science competitions, demonstrated designs for earthquake-proof houses, bracelets that measure blood-alcohol content, and convertible wheelchair arms.

Science is “more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves,” the president said in his East Room remarks. “It is an approach to the world.”

Attendees at the science fair included former science television-show host Bill Nye, NASA administrator Charles Bolden, and New York Giants’ wide receiver Victor Cruz. As Obama said, “We’ve got to celebrate the winners of our science fairs as much as we celebrate winners of football or basketball.”

This year’s science fair, according to the White House, had a focus on students who are underrepresented in STEM careers—i.e., girls and minorities. “We don’t want to just increase the number in STEM, we want to increase the diversity,” the president said in his speech. “Science is for all of us. And we want our classrooms and labs and workplaces and media to reflect that.”

The president also announced today that his 5-year-old Educate to Innovate campaign, which aims to encourage boys and girls to pursue science, technology, engineering, and math fields, has resulted in more than $1 billion in support for STEM programs from businesses, foundations, and schools.

Glimpse of the Fair

I had the chance to walk through the science experiments this afternoon as well. Here’s some of what I saw:

• Seventh graders Julie Bray, Ashton Cofer, and Luke Clay from Columbus, Ohio, designed a “Quake Safe” house to help people in earthquake-prone places such as Haiti. The house is made of bamboo, “a local plant in Haiti,” they told me, and is modeled after the shape of a Pringles potato chip. The students noticed that nuclear cooling towers were shaped similar to Pringles, which turned out to be more stable than their rectangular concrete prototypes.

• Fanta Sinalyoko and Jonathan Hernandez, as part of a larger high school team from Lancaster, Calif., that received a Lemelson-MIT grant, created a breathalyzer on a bracelet. The design is 1/8 the size of a normal breathalyzer and costs only $20. The mini-computer housed in the rubber bracelet has a light that turns green when the user who blows on it is under the legal limit for blood-alcohol content. (The students assured reporters they tested the product using mouthwash, which contains traces of alcohol.)

• Mohammed Sayed, an 11th grader from Cambridge, Mass., created a universal wheelchair arm with magnetic attachments that can be switched out as needed. A wheelchair user himself, Mohammed used a 3-D printer to make a tray, cupholder, and camera tripod that he can easily attach and detach. The idea, he told me, is similar to the GoPro camera, which has attachments and accessories for a variety of outdoor activities.

• Sierra Seabrease, a high school sophomore from Baltimore city, turned an old piano into a jukebox using a Raspberry Pi mini computer. The piano keys are numbered and so are the songs on an attached Spotify playlist, so users simply punch in the code for the song they’d like to hear. The piano also has some flashy jukebox-like lights.

Image: Dressed in superhero capes, 6-year-old Daisy Girl Scouts, from left, Alicia Cutter, Addy O’Neal, Emery Dodson, Karissa Cheng, and Emily Bergenroth, of Tulsa, Okla., meet with President Barack Obama before showing him their project during his tour of the White House Science Fair on Monday. The girls used Lego pieces and designed a battery-powered page turner to help people who are paralyzed or have arthritis. —Jacquelyn Martin/AP

Interested in science fairs? Join the Education Week Virtual Science Fair, going on now.

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