Obama Geeks Out with Students at White House Science Fair

22 days ago

A prosthetic leg fashioned from a recycled bicycle.  A handmade electric car raced by its creator.  A computer game meant to entice kids to love STEM.  And a camera that takes the place of a human diver in seeking out people trapped under ice.  100 students representing 30 states all came together today at the White House Science Fair to present their projects to the President of the United States.

Uh, yeah, this isn't your run-of-the-mill science fair.

Sure, there was an abundance of trifold board posters as well as slightly stunned-looking kids standing with their projects, but there was a definite dearth of model volcanoes.  Instead, participants presented the projects that won them awards in science competitions, some of which were currently patent pending.  And instead of the celebrity du jour being the school's science teacher, this event attracted the likes of Bill Nye, the Science Guy, and Bobak Ferdowsi, NASA's "Mohawk guy" from the Mars Rover project.

Many of the projects were meant to be solutions to problems.  Parker Owen from Alabama designed a prosthetic leg out of bicycle parts after learning about the large amputee population in Honduras.  His invention not only creates cost-effective limbs (only $3, plus the cost of the bicycle) but it keeps old bicycles out of landfills.

Image: Melissa Ford

Additionally, Ananya Cleetus from Pennsylvania used 3-D printing to create prosthetic limbs for leprosy victims.  Her battery operated hand current costs $100 to make, but she is hoping to bring the cost down to $30 in the future by etching her own computer chips.

Image: Melissa Ford

And Katia Castañeda from California created an electronic "seeing" cane for the blind that alerts users to obstacles in their path by using sensors and an Arduino.  By the way, it was her first time programming.

Image: Melissa Ford

Other projects were created to protect human lives.  First responders in Massachusetts are often called when a hole is found in the ice.  Sometimes these hole are created by ice fishermen, and other times, they are the result of someone falling into the body of water.  Without a way to know which scenario they are facing, divers often risk their lives looking for people under the ice.  An invention by Olivia Van Amsterdam and Katelyn Sweeney of Massachusetts keeps people safe by sending a remotely operated vehicle instead.

Image: Melissa Ford

And then there were the games, such as Stemville, an online video game which took Nicolas Badila of Georgia two years to create that will be up-and-running soon.  The game gets kids excited to learn math and science facts.

Image: Melissa Ford

And there was a squirmy pack of Lego WeDo-using, tiara-wearing Brownies from Oklahoma who made a bridge that senses when the water is too high and closes down to cars during a storm.

Image: Melissa Ford

The President addressed the group in an 18 minute speech, highlighting the projects he saw during the morning session.  I've heard the President speak many times -- you've heard the President speak many times -- but today, he didn't sound like the notoriously calm head of state, serenely leading the people.  He sounded like a geeked-out dad, amazed by all the kids that showed up in his home to present their inventions. He sounded like one of us; blown away by the technological advances being made on a daily basis.

Image: Melissa Ford

He concluded with this important point:

I wanted to let you know how proud and impressed I am with all of you.  Not only are you great scientists and engineers and tinkerers, but you also gave outstanding presentations to the President of the United States.  Not only are your parents very proud of you and your teachers and your mentors: I'm very proud of you as well.

Kids -- that makes all of us.

Melissa writes Stirrup Queens and Lost and Found. Her novel about blogging is Life from Scratch.

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