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The White House | President Obama Hosts the 2015 White House Science Fair

Uploaded 03/23/2015

President Obama Hosts the 2015 White House Science Fair

THE PRESIDENT:  Hello, everybody!  (Applause.)  Hello, hello!  Thank you.  Everybody have a seat.  Thank you.  Hello, scientists.  (Laughter.)

So this has got to be the most fun event of the year.  (Laughter.)  At least in the top three.  And before I go any further, though, I need to lay down some rules.  We had to put these in place based on the previous science fairs.  First of all, no taking your robots or electric go-karts for a spin on the South Lawn.  (Laughter.)  You can’t do that.  Rule number two, if you’re going to explode something, you have to warn us first.  (Laughter.)  Actually, just don’t explode anything.  (Laughter.) Number three, no using a marshmallow air cannon in the house — (laughter) — unless you let me shoot it first.  (Laughter.)

This is our fifth White House Science Fair.  And every year, I walk out smarter than I walked in, because these young people have something to teach all of us — not just about batteries, or attacking cancer cells, or how to build a working robot or a rocket.  I will say, though, the robots I see keep getting smarter every year.  We are keeping an eye on that, by the way.  (Laughter.)  You’re on notice, Skynet.

But these young scientists and engineers teach us something beyond the specific topics that they’re exploring.  They teach us how to question assumptions; to wonder why something is the way it is, and how we can make it better.  And 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.

That’s why we love science.  It’s more than a school subject, or the periodic table, or the properties of waves.  It is an approach to the world, a critical way to understand and explore and engage with the world, and then have the capacity to change that world, and to share this accumulated knowledge.  It’s a mindset that says we that can use reason and logic and honest inquiry to reach new conclusions and solve big problems.  And that’s what we are celebrating here today with these amazing young people.

Now, first of all, I’m going to announce the people who are not that young — although some of them are youngish.  We’re joined by some of America’s top scientists and engineers — starting with my Science Advisor, John Holdren.  (Applause.)  Yay, John.  The Director of the National Institutes of Health, Francis Collins is here.  (Applause.)  The head of our Patent and Trademark Office — so, young people, if you’ve got something fancy, talk to Michelle Lee right here.  (Applause.)  She’s ready to sign you up.  The Acting Director of the U.S. Geological Survey, Suzette Kimball is here.  (Applause.)  And somebody who has one of the coolest jobs in town, the head of NASA, Charles Bolden is here.  (Applause.)  Where’s Charlie?  If there are any aspiring astronauts here, he’s the man to impress.  He’s been in space himself.

We also have some outstanding guests who are here who’ve been participating in this on an ongoing basis.  Bill Nye, the Science Guy, is here.  (Applause.)  Signature bowtie.  So is Rush Holt, who’s one of the few scientists to serve in Congress.  We could probably use some more.  (Applause.)  There you go.  Rush is now the head of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.  And just so you knew that athletes think science is cool, too, we’ve got Victor Cruz of the New York Giants here.  (Applause.)  He is a big fan of science.  And he has to be — as all-pro wide receiver, he’s got to figure out trajectories and angles and velocities and the physics of doing the salsa.  (Laughter.)  For those of you who don’t know, he does a salsa every time he gets a touchdown, and he gets a lot of them.  (Laughter.)

Now, Victor has been here before to celebrate the New York Giants winning the Super Bowl.  But as I’ve said many times before, we’ve got to celebrate the winners of our science fairs as much as we celebrate the winners of football or basketball or other athletic competitions, because young scientists, mathematicians, engineers, they’re critical to our future.  You guys are the ones who are going to define the contours of the 21st century.

And I just had a chance to meet some of these young people.  And I fired a lot of questions at them, and they know their stuff.  It is unbelievable what so many of these young people have accomplished at such an early age.  And I wish I could talk about every single one of them because all of them were extraordinarily impressive.  But I want to leave enough time for everybody else to explore some of their exhibits.  John Holdren probably wants me to get some of their résumés in case we’re hiring.  But let me just mention a few of the young people that I had a chance to talk to, to give you a sense of the scope and depth and quality of the work that they’re doing.

So, first of all, we’ve got Sophia Sánchez-Maes who’s here from Las Cruces, New Mexico.  Where’s Sophia?  I just talked to her.  Did she get in?  There she is, right there.  (Applause.)  Sophia is a senior in high school and she is crazy about algae.  (Laughter.)  Now, to the non-science buffs here, you might say, what’s so great about algae?  But Sophia knows that algae is fascinating, especially as a potential fuel source.

So scientists are already working to turn algae into fuel.  One of the hurdles is to make the process more efficient so less energy gets wasted along the way.  Sophia saw that was a challenge.  She asked why.  She has created a more efficient method.  She’s identified optimal algae to use in her method, and she’s helping to bring the world closer to using algae as a clean, renewable, and even inexhaustible energy source.  And it’s already being tested in her hometown, the process that she’s developing.  It is amazing.  So let’s give Sophia a big round of applause.  (Applause.)

Harry Paul is here from Port Washington, New York.  Where’s Harry?  There’s Harry, right here.  (Applause.)  So Harry graduated and is now in his first year at Tufts.  But listen to this story, because I think it gives you a sense of the quality of the young people we’ve got here.  Harry was born with a condition called congenital scoliosis — a curvature of the spine.  So, growing up, Harry endured more than a dozen operations.  Rather than feel sorry for himself, he thought there’s got to be a better way of doing this.  So he designed a new type of spinal implant.

Starting in his freshman year in high school, he started researching the processes that he himself had gone through — his doctor was an expert on this — and he decided, let’s see if I can come up with something better, an implant that can grow along with the growing child so it doesn’t have to be constantly replaced or adjusted, which means you don’t need as many intrusive operations.  And Harry’s implant could reduce the number of surgeries that a child may need for more than a dozen to as few as five, which obviously would cut down medical costs, but more importantly, would save a lot of young people pain and time out from school and recovery time, and the potential complications of an operation.

Unbelievable stuff.  Give Harry a big round of applause.  (Applause.)

So Nikhil Behari is here from Pennsylvania.  Where’s Nikhil. There’s Nikhil.  (Applause.)  He’s a freshman — right? — in high school, interested in how we can better protect ourselves against hackers and data thieves online.  So scientists are already using biometrics to prove that each of us walk in our own distinct ways.  And Nikhil wondered, what if we each type in a distinct ways?  So he collected all kinds of data about how a person types — their speed, how often they pause, how much pressure they use; built a special keyboard to test it.  And he proved that his hypothesis was correct — that even if somebody knows your password, they don’t necessarily punch it in exactly the way you do.

And he asked why — and made discoveries that now could help keep our online accounts more secure.  So in the future, if keystroke-based authentication keeps your siblings from breaking into your Facebook account or your Instagram account, you will know who to thank.  (Laughter.)  It will be Nikhil.  Congratulations.  (Applause.)

So those three are just samples of the extraordinary scientists that we’ve already — and engineers — that we’ve already got here.

I should give special mention to our Girl Scouts from Oklahoma. Where are those Super Girls?  (Applause.)  They’re standing up, but you can’t really see them — (laughter) — because they’re in kindergarten and first grade.  They are today’s youngest scientists at six years old.  They built their device out of Legos.  They realized that some people who might be paralyzed or arthritic might have trouble turning pages on a book so they invented this page turner.  It was awesome.  It was working so well, despite the fact, as they pointed out — this is a quote, they said, “This is just a prototype.”  (Laughter.)  That’s what they said.  I said, well, how’d you come up with the idea?  They said, well, we had a brainstorming session.  (Laughter.)  And then one of them asked, “Mr. President, have you had brainstorming sessions?”  (Laughter.)  I said, yes, but I didn’t come up with something as cool as this — (laughter) — an automatic page turner.  Unbelievable.

Ruchi Pandya — where’s Ruchi?  There’s Ruchi.  (Applause.) Found a way to use a single drop of blood to test a person’s heart function, much like a person with diabetes tests their blood sugar.

Anvita Gupta — where’s Anvita?  There she is.  (Applause.) Used artificial intelligence and biochemistry to identify potential treatments for cancer, tuberculosis, Ebola.  What she’s done is she’s developed an algorithm that could potentially significantly speed up the process of finding drugs that might work against these diseases.

Something smells like it’s burning there — and I don’t think it’s an experiment.  (Laughter.)  I think it’s somebody’s camera.  Do we have it under control?  We don’t see any flames bursting.  Yes?  All right.  Okay, it sounds like a little electrical short, but let’s keep monitoring that.  (Laughter.)  Exits will be — (laughter) — in that direction, should anything happen.  The last time there was a fire here, the British were invading.  (Laughter.)

But Anvita’s algorithm has the potential of speeding up pathways to discovering what drugs would work on what diseases, and is consistent with some of the work that we announced around precision medicine that we are funding at a significant pace here at the White House.

Now, I should point out that, like several of the young people here, Anvita and Ruchi are first-generation Americans.  Their parents came here, in part, so their kids could develop their talents and make a difference in the world.  And we’re really glad they did.

So I want to congratulate all of you for your remarkable achievements.  You’ve made a lot of people proud — your parents, your teachers, your friends, your mentors.  And as President, I’m proud of you, because America is going to be stronger and smarter and healthier, and a much more interesting place because of you.

But it’s not enough for our country just to be proud of you. We’ve also got to support you.  We’ve got to make sure that young people like you are going to keep on having what you need to discover and experiment and to innovate.  So I’ve got three announcements to make that really were already kind of in the works before I met you guys, but it’s a pretty good occasion to announce them because you’re so inspiring.

First — four years ago, I set a national goal to provide 98 percent of Americans with high-speed wireless Internet so that any young scientist or entrepreneur could access the world’s information.  Today, I can announce that we have achieved that goal, and we did it ahead of schedule.  (Applause.)  That’s a big deal.

Second, to make sure that we keep expanding broadband across the country, I’m creating a new team called the Broadband Opportunity Council, made up of leaders across government, who will work with business and communities to invest in next-generation Internet nationwide.  Because this not just going to be a key for your ability to learn and create; it’s also a key for America’s ability to compete and lead in the world.

Number three — no young person in America should miss out on the chance to excel in these fields just because they don’t have the resources.  So, five years ago, we launched a campaign called “Educate to Innovate,” to help more of our students explore science, technology, engineering and math.  Today, I’m pleased to announce $240 million in new contributions from businesses, from schools, from foundations across the country to help kids learn in these STEM fields.  So we are very, very proud to make that announcement.  (Applause.)

Corporations have pledged to help expand high-quality science and technology education to more than 1.5 million students.  More than 120 universities have pledged to help train 20,000 new engineers to tackle the toughest challenges of this century.  Foundations like the Howard Hughes Medical Institute, and the Gates Foundation, and the Simons Foundation, will support scientists early in their careers with mentoring and funding.   And, all told, these new commitments bring our grand total up to $1 billion in commitments to our kids since we first got this initiative started five years ago.

And I was talking to some of the folks who are helping to finance our efforts, and one of the things that they’ve discovered is that it’s not enough just to talk about STEM.  Part of what’s important to do is also to recognize that what you do in math and engineering and science has a purpose to it; that there are huge challenges that we have to solve in how we have clean energy, and how to we clean up our environment, and how do we solve crippling diseases like Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s.  And when we give students the inspiration not just that math and science are inherently interesting, and technology and engineering are inherently interesting, but there’s actual problems to solve, it turns out that young people, they rise to the challenge.  And that’s what’s so exciting about it.

We don’t want to just increase the number of American students in STEM.  We want to make sure everybody is involved.  We want to increase the diversity of STEM programs, as well.  And that’s been a theme of this science fair.  We get the most out of all our nation’s talent — and that means reaching out to boys and girls, men and women of all races and all backgrounds. Science is for all of us.  And we want our classrooms and labs and workplaces and media to reflect that.

And this is something that Megan Smith, our Chief Technology Officer, is really keen about.  Part of the problem is we don’t tell the stories enough of the incredible scientists and inventors along the way who are women, or people of color, and as a consequence, people don’t see themselves as potential scientists.  Except the good news is these young women and African American and Latino and Asian American folks, young people who are here today — you guys certainly see yourselves as scientists.  So you’re helping to inspire your classmates and kids who are coming up behind you to pursue these dreams as well. And that’s what’s so exciting.

Because the United States has always been a place that loves science.  We’ve always been obsessed with tinkering and discovering and inventing and pushing the very boundaries of what’s possible.  That’s who we are.  It’s in our DNA. Technological discovery helped us become the world’s greatest economic power.  Scientific and medical breakthroughs helped us become the greatest source of hope around the world.  And that’s not just our past, that’s also our future, because of amazing young people like this.

So I want to thank you for inspiring me.  You got me off to a good start today.  Keep exploring.  Keep dreaming.  Keep asking why.  Don’t settle for what you already know.  Never stop believing in the power of your ideas, your imagination, your hard work to change the world.

And to all the adults in the room, and to any members of Congress who might be listening, just think about all — oh, Eddie Bernice Johnson is here, an outstanding member of Congress, who’s a big support of STEM education.  Just remember, all these young people — to continue to pursue the research that might bring about a new clean energy source, or might cure a disease, a lot of them 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 needs 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.  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.

So, congratulations.  Give all these young people a big round of applause.  (Applause.)  Go take a look at their outstanding stuff.  It’s really great.  (Applause.)

12:37 P.M. EDT

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