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White House Science Fair Puts Whiz Kids in a Serious Spotlight

President Barack Obama has a blast at the White House Science Fair, one of his "favorite things" — but Monday's event isn't just fun and games.
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Whether he's shooting off a marshmallow cannon or pedaling a bike-powered water sanitation system, President Barack Obama looks forward to the White House Science Fair as a day to be shocked and awed by school-age whiz kids.

"I love this event," Obama told reporters at last year's fair, where he caught a basketball that was fired off by a mechanical catapult. "This is one of my favorite things all year long."

But the science fair, which takes place for the fifth time on Monday, isn't just fun and games: Each year's lineup includes serious innovations — and you can't get much more serious than the Safe & Sound smartphone app that an all-girl team from Washington state developed to help head off teen suicides and school shootings. The app offers quick access to emergency hotlines, tips for dealing with crises and even a journaling feature.

Safe & Sound has already won a $20,000 prize from the Verizon Foundation for the Tri-Tech Skills Center in Kennewick, plus oodles of kudos. The Android app will be offered for free in the Google Play online store. It's a big deal — but for 17-year-old team member Chloe Westphal, the White House spotlight is just as big.

"After you've done this, you feel like you could do anything," she told NBC News. "I can say, 'I just talked with the president, I don't need to be shy around anyone.'"

The White House uses the science fair to highlight the administration's support of science, technology, engineering and math education — a broad field known as STEM. Obama is due to announce a fresh batch of STEM initiatives at Monday's event, aimed at inspiring more girls and boys, especially those from traditionally underrepresented groups, to enter the field.

Westphal says the coding project already has inspired her to think about a STEM career. "It's definitely something that I would consider," she said.

Kristian Sonsteby, a 17-year-old senior at Wallenpaupack Area High School in Hawley, Pennsylvania, is also looking forward to the science fair — and not just because he'll be seeing the president. "It's really cool just to be able to meet with other kids who are interested in the same things," he told NBC News.

He and his teammates came up with a device that generates electricity from the waves that ripple across a lake that sits right alongside his high-school's grounds. The idea took shape two years ago when the kids were casting around for an engineering project that would help the community.

"We said, 'Why don't we use shake-light technology to create a wave-powered electric generator" for the lanterns that light up the lake's docks, Wallenpaupack senior Corine Peifer recalled. It turned out that a gear-motor system worked even better, so the team built a prototype generator with the aid of an InvenTeam grant from the Lemelson-MIT Program.

Now the local utility is looking into installing the wave-power generators on Lake Wallenpaupack's docks — and the high-schoolers wil be at the White House on Monday, demonstrating a scaled-down version of the system in a 30-gallon wave tank.

Other InvenTeam winners will be there as well: Students from SOAR High School in Lancaster, California, will show off a wristband that can detect blood alcohol levels when it's breathed on. The gizmo is cheaper to make and smaller than traditional breath analyzers, and the team says one company has already expressed interest in licensing the technology.

"My most favorite part about this whole process is that we get to save lives — and I mean millions and millions of lives," team member Branden Eshrati, 18, said in a video about the project. "Thirty people die every day from a drunk driving-related incident, so the fact that we get to create something and eventually put it on the market is remarkable."

If Obama feels like strapping on an alcohol-checking bracelet, or splashing water in a power-generating water tank, or tapping into a suicide prevention app, that could make for a photo op of marshmallow-cannon proportions. But even if he doesn't, the impact of the teens' inventions will continue long after the students leave the White House, said Leigh Estabrooks, the Lemelson-MIT Program’s invention education officer.

"They inspire other youth to realize that they, too, can make a difference by applying science, technology, engineering and math to solve pressing problems in their communities and the world," Estabrooks said in a news release.