In his first year in office, President Obama announced that as long as he's in office, there would be an annual White House Science Fair. He explained at the time, "If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you've produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too. Scientists and engineers ought to stand side by side with athletes and entertainers as role models, and here at the White House we're going to lead by example. We're going to show young people how cool science can be."
He's kept his word.
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."
Take a look at the Where Are They Now report on previous fair exhibitors.
It's so easy to be cynical and pessimistic about the future, and to assume that the nation's best days are behind us. But then you take a look at the truly extraordinary young people who participated in today's White House Science Fair and suddenly it's a little easier to believe the next generation of Americans is well prepared to take the lead.
Of particular interest, as Nia-Malika Henderson reported, today's event included "a special focus on getting girls involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Half the students at the fair today will be young women." Kari Byron -- yes from "Mythbusters" -- "will shoot PSAs focused on getting STEM mentors connected with students, particularly girls."
Stepping back, I'm reminded of something Jonathan Cohn wrote back in 2009: "I'm sure this is not the first group of accomplished student innovators to win White House recognition. But I don't recall past presidents giving the event the trappings of a sports championship visit. And while it's just a public relations event, it also sends a broader message about the value this administration and its allies place on intellectual achievement."
I couldn't agree more. Indeed, it's not just a signal about the White House's emphasis on science; the annual event is also making clear the societal emphasis. As we've discussed before, America's future depends on our willingness to make a real commitment to innovation, science, research, and intellectual pursuits. The more science fairs, the better.
As for the politics, I'm not familiar with any notable critics of White House Science Fairs, though the gatherings represent an important partisan bookend -- as Republicans grow increasingly hostile towards science, it's reassuring to see a president embrace science with passion and enthusiasm.