President Obama Hosts White House Science Fair – Indian-American Innovators Honored at Annual Event


June 5, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC – On May 27, President Obama hosted the 2014 White House Science Fair celebrating bright and brilliant innovators from across the country.

June 5, 2014

By Geeta Goindi

Washington, DC – On May 27, President Obama hosted the 2014 White House Science Fair celebrating bright and brilliant innovators from across the country.

President Obama addressing the gathering at the 2014 White House Science Fair celebrating student winners of competitions devoted to STEM

 Some 100 student winners of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) competitions were honored at a sparkling function in the ornate East Room of the White House on a summer-like day.  Among the Indian-American super-achievers were: Swapneel Mandal, age 7, of Oklahoma; Kavita Selva, 14, Texas; Arjun Mahajan, 15, California; Ananya Cheetus, 17, Pennsylvania; and Abhishek Subba, 18, Maryland.

The White House Science Fair, an annual event, is the President’s brainchild which was inaugurated in 2010, fulfilling a commitment he made at the launch of his ‘Educate to Innovate’ campaign to inspire students to excel in math and science.  Visibly excited, Obama said at the outset, “I love this event.  This is one of my favorite things all year long”.

Noting that “if you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House”, the President reasoned, “if you’re a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too”.

And the White House Science Fair does that; it celebrates outstanding work by young people in science.  It has become a popular, prestigious and eagerly awaited event!

Over 200 distinguished guests packed the East Room, on Tuesday, including: Secretary of Education Arne Duncan; Charles Bolden, head of the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and a former astronaut; Francis Collins, Director of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD; John Holdren, the President’s chief Science Advisor; Bill Nye, popularly known as the Science Guy, a television host, scientist and educator; Kari Byron, television hostess and artist; business leaders; teachers; parents; mentors; and, of course, brilliant students.

It was heart-warming to learn about the strides that young Indian-Americans are making in the field of science and technology and, in the process, having such a huge positive impact on society.  Take Swapneel Mandal who, together with his friends Ciara Newberry and Elora Johnson, has designed a ‘Hot Car Safety System’ whereby an alarm is set off when a car becomes too hot for people or animals.  Weight sensors placed under the seats of the car ensure that the system turns on to protect all occupants.  Kudos to these children, second-grade students of John Ross Elementary School.  They have addressed an issue worrying many parents: the threat to children sitting in overheated vehicles.  Swapneel and his friends bagged first place in the National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision competition and earned a $10,000 savings bond.

Members of the audience at the 2014 White House Science Fair hosted by President Obama

Then, there is Kavita Selva who has designed a strong magnet that contains little or no rare materials, quite a feat given the global shortage of metals and elements used in magnets.

Arjun Mahajan teamed up with his peers, Jonathan Berman and Maya Flannery, to study Stereotypy: a behavioral issue involving repetitive or ritualistic movement quite typical in children with Autism which can create social barriers and impede their ability to learn.  Arjun and his friends designed a motion-detecting bracelet which transmits a signal to children that they are stereotyping.

Ananya Cheetus has worked with a charity in New Delhi to manufacture and patent a number of her inventions including ‘Jaipur Foot’, an improved prosthetic leg.  Abhishek Subba, together with four other Maryland teens, harnessed the power of the sun to create a working mini ‘hovercraft’ toy.

Acknowledging the remarkable skills of the student winners, President Obama told the audience at the Science Fair, “I couldn’t even imagine doing some of the work that the young people I had a chance to meet were doing when I was their age, and your generation of young people is learning more than people in some ages ever did”.

He noted that superstar biologists, engineers, rocket scientists and robot-builders “don’t always get the attention that they deserve, but they are what’s going to transform our society.  They are the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases and new sources of energy, and help us build healthier, more successful societies”, he said.  “And I want to make sure that every young people across America knows what their peers are doing to inspire even more work in science.  That’s what this White House Science Fair is all about”.

This year, the Fair focused on girls and women who are excelling in STEM and inspiring the next generation with their formidable work.  President Obama, in his administration’s signature education reform initiative, Race to the Top, has granted states competitive preference if they demonstrate efforts to close the STEM gap for girls and other groups that are under-represented.

He told the audience at the White House, “this year, we’re putting special emphasis and special focus on all the amazing girls and young women who are excelling at science and technology and engineering and math.  And I met some amazing young ladies here today”.

The statistics are startling; they tell another story!  Obama pointed out that currently, fewer than one in five bachelor’s degrees in engineering or computer science are earned by women.  Furthermore, fewer than three in ten workers in science and engineering are women.  Noting that half the team is not even on the field, the President said, “We have got to change those numbers.  These are the fields of the future.  This is where the good jobs are going to be”.

Shoring up his commitment to inspire students to excel in STEM, Obama announced a new $35 million competition to train some of the best math and science graduates to become teachers and encourage more hands-on science as displayed in the Fair.

Furthermore, STEM AmeriCorps will be expanded to provide learning opportunities for 18,000 low-income students this summer.

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