WASHINGTON—With the third annual White House Science Fair as his backdrop, Pres. Barack Obama announced plans Monday to recruit one million new science, technology, engineering and math mentors from the private and public sectors to inspire many more students to pursue advanced educations and careers in those fields.
Saying he is taking an “all-hands-on-deck approach” to STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) education, Obama said that in addition to recruiting an “army of new teachers in these subject areas,” the country needs “to give the millions of Americans who work in science and technology not only the kind of respect they deserve but also new ways to engage young people.”
The administration said it hopes to make the new mentoring initiative, part of the White House’s Educate to Innovate campaign, as common among STEM professions as pro bono work is among legal firms. Ten education nonprofits and major technology companies, including SanDisk, Cognizant and Cisco Systems, have committed to become the founding members of a multiyear mentoring effort called US2020 that aims for 20 percent of each company’s workforce to commit to 20 hours a year to mentoring work by the year 2020. The 10 founding companies also pledged to provide more than $2 million in private money to fund the program’s launch.
Before announcing the new mentoring initiatives, Obama went booth to booth through the science fair, staged inside the White House as well as in the sunny but windy Jacqueline Kennedy Garden on the South Lawn. The student exhibits featured the innovative work of about 100 winners of national and regional science, technology, engineering and math competitions held throughout the country. Many of the projects were completed with the help of mentors and after-school programs offered by schools.
Students, ranging in age from eight to 19, showed off projects that included a cost-efficient method of transforming algae into biofuel by 2013 Intel Science Talent Search winner Sara Volz, 17, of Colorado Springs, Colo., as well as 16-year-old Jack Andraka’s breakthrough pancreatic cancer test that he developed after identifying a key protein, mesothelin, produced by pancreatic tumors. The discovery won Andraka, of Crownsville, Md., first place in the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
During his speech Obama mentioned that Andraka repeatedly requested space from research labs to pursue his experiments but was turned down nearly 200 times. “Finally, with the help of some folks at Johns Hopkins, he got the research facilities that he needed, developed a pancreatic cancer test that is faster, cheaper and more sensitive than the test that came before it—which is not bad for a guy who is just barely old enough to drive.”
Noting that Monday was also the 43rd Earth Day, Obama gave “a special shout-out to all of the young people...who focused their attention on how to harness cleaner forms of energy and how to create more energy efficiency.” These inventions included a wind turbine small enough to mount on a roof, a bicycle-powered water decontamination system capable of filtering out Escherichia coli and other dangerous pathogens from contaminated water, and an inexpensive press capable of transforming biomass waste (like banana peels and peanut shells) into compressed cooking fuel to combat deforestation—the latter, a winner of the Siemens We Can Change the World Challenge.
Kiona Elliott, 18, of Oakland Park, Fla., said her group’s pedal-power project was inspired by a fellow student who told them about the water contamination crisis she saw as a volunteer in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake. “We live in Florida and we have hurricanes here all the time,” Elliott said. Because big storms are often accompanied by power outages, they decided their system should be powered manually.