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Obama Unleashes His Inner Geek (Again) at White House Science Fair

Image: Catapult catch

President Barack Obama prepares to catch a basketball thrown by team member Brooke Bohn and her project, a basketball catapult, while he hosts the 2014 White House Science Fair in the State Dining Room on Tuesday. Larry Downing / Reuters

Science education went to the head of the class at the White House on Tuesday, with President Barack Obama announcing a $35 million competition for teacher training programs — and checking out an all-star lineup of science fair projects.

"I love this event!" Obama told an audience of students, teachers and VIPs. "This is one of my favorite things all year long."

The president chatted with kids from more than two dozen science-fair teams as he made his way through the State Dining Room.

"We're so proud of you," Obama told Elana Simon, an 18-year-old from New York who survived a bout with a rare liver cancer when she was 12 and developed a genetic database for patients with the same disease. "Can I just say, I did not do this at 12, 13, or 18. ... This is just a sample of the kind of outstanding young talent that we've got."

At one point, he lingered to play catch with a catapult that was built by a group of Massachusetts teens to study basketball shooting technique.

Obama played it safe by watching one of the kids demonstrate the mechanical basketball-hurler first.

"Last time I was here, there was a guy shooting marshmallows ... that thing went fast!" Obama said, recalling a science-fair demonstration that went viral in 2012. The president looked up at the ceiling and joked, "That marshmallow might still be there."

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Obama has traditionally used science fairs to highlight programs that promote careers in science, technology, engineering and math — a group of disciplines known collectively as STEM.

"As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners because super-star biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don't always get the attention that they deserve, but they're what's going to transform our society," he said. "They're the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases, and new sources of energy and help us build healthier and more successful societies."

Among this year's announcements was the latest twist in Obama's "Educate to Innovate" campaign to spark interest in science careers: an additional $35 million in grants, to be awarded competitively to programs that provide preparation and training for STEM teachers.

Other newly announced initiatives included:

  • Expansion of the STEM AmeriCorps program, which was launched at last year's White House Science Fair, to provide learning opportunities for 18,000 low-income students this summer.
  • New mentoring programs in seven cities, supported by the public-private US2020 effort. The cities include Allentown, Pennsylvania; Chicago; Indianapolis; North Carolina's Research Triangle Park; Philadelphia; San Francisco; and Wichita, Kansas.
  • A nationwide campaign called "Aprender es Triunfar," aimed at inspiring Latino STEM students. A centerpiece of the campaign, launched by NBC Universal's Hispanic Enterprises and Content, is a new documentary film titled "Underwater Dreams."
  • A grant from Esri to make its cloud-based advanced mapping software available for free to more than 100,000 elementary, middle and high schools as part of the White House's ConnectED Initiative.
  • A series of interactive online lessons to help more students learn the math and science behind going to Mars, presented by Khan Academy and NASA.

This year's event, the fourth-ever White House Science Fair, put special emphasis on highlighting the role of girls and women in STEM. Obama noted that men still outnumber women when it comes to studying and working in science — particularly in such fields as engineering and computer science.

"Half our team we're not even putting on the field," he said. "We've got to change those numbers."

Kari Byron, a host on the Discovery Channel's popular "Mythbusters" TV show, joined Bill Nye the Science Guy as an emcee for the daylong event. One of the projects featured was the prize-winning "Hello Navi" app for visually challenged students, which was developed by a team of sixth-grade girls at a Texas middle school.

"Not only do these young ladies have big brains, but they've also got big hearts," Obama said.

Another science-fair star was Maria Hanes, a 19-year-old woman from California who designed a "Concussion Cushion" for football players' helmets — and who aspires to become the first female head coach of a collegiate football team.

The youngest participants included a troop of 8-year-old Girl Scouts who invented a "Flood Proof Bridge," and a trio of Oklahoma second-graders who designed an alarm system for cars that get too hot.