Education News

White House Science Fair Features Top Student Projects

President Obama mixes praise for student scientists with criticism of congressional budget proposals at the fifth annual White House Science Fair.

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U.S. president Barack Obama delivered an encouraging message to young scientists and a pointed message to Congress to support science in remarks at the fifth annual White House Science Fair on 23 March.

“Hello, scientists,” said Obama to the students, from 6 years old and up, who had assembled in the East Room for the fair. The event featured 36 science projects.

Among the students was Sophia Sánchez-Maes, a 16-year-old from Las Cruces, N.M., who is having promising results with converting an extremophile algae into a renewable biofuel. She “is crazy about algae,” Obama said about Sánchez-Maes. Other students featured at the science fair had sent an experiment to the International Space Station (ISS), developed a method to use agricultural waste to remove water pollutants, and experimented with construction materials that could make buildings more structurally sound to withstand earthquakes.

The student scientists and engineers “teach us something beyond the specific topics that they’re exploring,” Obama said. “They remind us that there’s always something more to learn, and to try, and to discover, and to imagine—and that it’s never too early or too late to create or discover something new.”

Federal Commitment to Research

In his remarks, Obama focused on the need to increase the diversity of students in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) programs. He also stressed that science needs support and funding. Innovative minds, he said, “are going to need the capacity to get research positions and fellowships and grants. And that, particularly when it comes to basic research, has typically been funded by the federal government. And my federal budget promotes a significant increase in the kinds of research that need to happen. Unfortunately, some of the budgets coming out of Congress don’t make those same commitments.”

“So it’s not enough for us to just lift up young people and say, great job, way to go,” Obama continued. “You also have to have labs to go to, and you’ve got to be able to support yourself while you’re doing this amazing research. And that involves us as a society making the kind of investments that are going to be necessary for us to continue to innovate for many, many years to come.”

In conjunction with the science fair, the White House announced a number of initiatives, including more than $240 million in private sector commitments to science education and new ways to engage students in citizen science efforts.

Student Projects

Among the student scientists were Kalista Ybarra, 12, and Madelyn Hickman, 11, from the Hobby Middle School in San Antonio, Texas, who shared their “Crystal Tetris” experiment. Designed to compare the growth of ice crystals onboard the ISS with that of crystals grown concurrently on Earth, the project was supposed to have been delivered to the space station on 28 October 2014. The original delivery rocket crashed, but the student project hitched a ride on a subsequent launch in January. The girls told Eos that they were glad the experiment made it to the ISS the second time.

NASA administrator Charles Bolden attended the science fair and met with a number of the students, including the Crystal Tetris team. “Talking to a group of kids that had actually flown something on the International Space Station already, to me, that is mind-boggling,” he told Eos.

Bolden had three pieces of advice for children: Study hard, work hard, and don’t be afraid of failure. The Crystal Tetris team members “epitomize the lack of any fear of failure. They faced failure and then picked themselves up and went back in again. And I think that’s an incredible lesson.”

Other student scientists included 11-year-olds Jose Valdez II, Casandra Dauz, and Jaleena Rolon from Espanola, N.M., who modeled a tabletop design, incorporating infrastructure and aquatic elements into their City of Crystal Water project.

Promoting the Importance of STEM

Astronaut and former NASA associate administrator for education Leland Melvin speaks to Science Fair participants Casandra Dauz, Jaleena Rolon, and Jose Valdez II. Credit: Randy Showstack
Astronaut and former NASA associate administrator for education Leland Melvin speaks to Science Fair participants Casandra Dauz, Jaleena Rolon, and Jose Valdez II. Credit: Randy Showstack

Providing encouragement to them and other whiz kids was astronaut Leland Melvin, former NASA associate administrator for education. He told Eos, “It’s an incredible science fair. The way that the president showcases these students, just like he does NFL [National Football League] teams that win the championship, it’s just so important to raise the level of what’s going on in our society with STEM education.”

Melvin also stressed the need for diversity, a theme of the science fair. “I was a little African American kid in a small town. I never really saw anyone who was flying to space that looked like me. But my mom gave me a chemistry set [where] I could mix together two chemicals and make an explosion. That activated my brain into thinking, ‘Hey, I want to be a chemist now because you can do really cool stuff.”

His advice to students: Believe in yourself, have a dream of what you want to do, and find mentors who can help you achieve your goal.

Science Fair participant Sophia Sánchez-Maes with her grandfather Albert Sánchez. Credit: Randy Showstack
Science Fair participant Sophia Sánchez-Maes with her grandfather Albert Sánchez. Credit: Randy Showstack

A Transformative Moment

Sánchez-Maes told Eos she has “been into algae” for a long time. “Lots of efforts for biofuel revolve around corn, but I heard algae can produce 10 times as much without interfering with the agricultural supply,” said Sánchez-Maes, who has been working to optimize the process.

About meeting President Obama, Sánchez-Maes said she was nervous and excited. “He was in the room next to mine talking to some Girl Scouts. And I was just jumping up and down quietly so I could get [my nerves] all out before he came in.” She said that when she saw him enter the room, “I sombered up and got ready to keep my cool and focus on what was really important, just getting this information out.” She said that the president is interested in renewable energy and asked a lot of good questions.

Sánchez-Maes brought her proud grandfather, Albert Sánchez of Las Cruces, with her to the White House. She recalled that when she was younger, she told her grandfather that she would take him to Washington, D. C., one day. “So when I finally got to call him up about 2 weeks ago and say, ‘Hey, Grandpa, I’m taking you to D. C.,’ it was such a transformative moment within my life to be able to say I got to this place.”

—Randy Showstack, Staff Writer

Citation: Showstack, R. (2015), White House Science Fair features top student projects, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO026973. Published on 25 March 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0