Like most teenagers, Nicolas Badila, 15, spent Memorial Day playing video games. But, unlike his friends, he was playing games at the White House. Nic, one of the winners of the 2013 National STEM Video Game Challenge, had been invited to showcase his winning game at the White House Science Fair on May 27.
The White House Science Fair began three years ago as part of Obama’s Educate to Innovate campaign. Why, Obama asked the audience, do presidents traditionally meet the winners of the country’s sports championships, but none of the winners of its school championships?
“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.”
The students arrived at the White House on Monday, ready to set up their exhibits, transform society, and wearing huge smiles. Amidst the humid summer day and numerous security checks, chaperones and students excitedly shared stories of their projects. The participants were eager to learn from one another and saw each other as peers and future collaborators, not as competitors. There were two games being showcased – STEMVille by Nic, and Better than History by Amena Jamali, 16, and Juan Ramos’, 17, a game that lets students step into the shoes of historical figures to explore their influence. The three shared design tips and spoke with other interested students about how they could learn how to design video games. The level of camaraderie amongst the exhibitors was admirable. As everyone pitched in to set up the exhibits, White House staffers prepped the students for the next day’s events and learned about their work, brokering connections between the students. As a chaperone, I was struck by the investment the White House poured into the students—each staffer made an effort to meet the exhibitors, to offer guidance, and seemed intent on using what they learned from the students in future STEM policy. This created an infectiously enthusiastic environment which extended into the Science Fair the next day.
The next morning, we woke up early for the Science Fair and headed to the White House. The students were whisked away to finish setting up their exhibits and play with the White House puppies. Meanwhile, the guests mingled in the queue, discussing their involvement with the fair. As luck would have it, I wound up spending much of the day with Bill Nye, the science educator and TV host. He reiterated his support for video game design and offered advice for my first visit to the Science Fair (he’s been a VIP guest since the event started). He commended the White House for supporting student innovators and noted how each year the exhibits got more impressive and spurred renewed interest in STEM policy. It was funny to hear him talk about how these students inspired him, since it was clear from the students’ reactions that he’d inspired many of them to pursue their scientific dreams. He and the other guests mingled and befriended the students, and by the end of the day, almost every participant had a selfie with Bill Nye!
Bill Nye wasn’t the only celebrity in attendance; the event was filled with senior officials from various government agencies, educators, journalists, all of whom had advice for the students. For example, a senior NASA official who was impressed by STEMVille spoke with Nic about getting his game into the educational market and encouraging teachers to play it, offering business insight he would otherwise struggle to get. These and other connections brokered through the science fair demonstrated the current administration’s interest in supporting all types of STEM-related thinking.
This interest was reiterated by President Obama in his conversations with students and the speech he gave attendees. Yes. Obama came. And yes, he played Nic’s game.
Nowhere was the passion for STEM more evident than in the attention that the President paid to the students at the exhibit. The President visited with many of the students present, asking questions about their exhibits, their passions, and their backgrounds. He even hosted a meeting with several of the female attendees to help inform his #girlsinSTEM initiatives. One of the girls involved appropriately described the meeting as “REALLY cool.” Most importantly, his and others’ interests helped reaffirm these students’ commitment to their STEM-subject of choice. As Nic explained, “Shaking his hand was inspirational. It helped me realize my potential and made me realize that game design and robotics really is my path.”
Obama spoke to the audience about his new STEM initiatives around improving education, increasing diversity, and creating mentorship centers. He announced the launch of three new initiatives:
- A new $35 million Department of Education competition, in support of the President’s goal to train 100,000 excellent STEM teachers;
- A major expansion of STEM AmeriCorps to provide STEM learning opportunities for 18,000 low-income students this summer;
- A national STEM mentoring effort kicking off in seven cities, as well as new steps by leading technology and media companies, non-profits and others to connect more students to STEM.
The projects showcased an impressive array of STEM skills and applications, with projects ranging from a solar-powered sensor that alerts pedestrians and prevents vehicular deaths in Addis Abba, Ethiopia to revolutionary new tests for cancer. However, across all of the exhibits, I was struck that the students were addressing problems they found in their communities. To them, science and math were an empowering way to bring about real-world change. For example, Ananya Cleetus, 17, used 3-D printing technology to develop a cost-effective prosthetic hand that helps Indian leprosy victims gain work,a cause she became passionate about after time volunteering. Meanwhile, Cassandra Baquero, 13, Caitlin Gonzolez, 12, and Janessa Leija, 11, felt it unfair that a visually-impaired friend of theirs had to spend his summer getting acclimated to a new school. In response, they developed Hello Navi, an app that visually-impaired individuals could use to navigate through new environments. The students demonstrated a passion for using their STEM ingenuity to address the causes they were passionate about, showcasing an inspiring drive that more can learn from.
And Nic hopes that more students will do the same. He designed STEMVille to teach math and science to younger students: “The next generation is our future, and learning to program taught me that I can literally create whatever I want. More kids need to do that.”
Created with flickr slideshow.