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.

Obama seemed particularly charmed by the “COOL Pads” designed by the three youngest exhibitors who were the Grade K–3 Regional Winners of the 2012 Toshiba and National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision competition. The boys’ winning proposal used temperature sensors placed throughout football players’ bodies that detect overheating and respond by activating ice packs in the “COOL Pads” under the shoulder pads to prevent heat stroke.

The prototype, designed by brothers Evan and Alec Jackson, 10 and eight respectively, and their friend Caleb Robinson, eight, all of McDonough, Ga., also included a wearable soft pouch of Gatorade and an extra long straw so players could hydrate without leaving the field. “They can drink any flavor they want, and they don’t have to go to the sidelines for Gatorade,” said Evan Jackson. “It would also be good for firefighters, hockey players, NASCAR racers and the military.” The boys admit that they don’t have the technological know-how quite yet to make a working version of their proposal—they’re only in the third and fourth grades—but luckily, at their age, all they needed was a really good idea and a prototype to win their competition. “We hope to build it in 20 years,” Robinson said.

During his remarks in the East Room later that afternoon, Obama made a point of mentioning the COOL Pads to wide receiver Victor Cruz of the New York Giants, who was in the audience as an invited guest, adding, “It could work.”

More importantly, Obama said, these kids are excited about science, and now the challenge is to mentor that interest. “Think about that,” he said. “If you’re inventing stuff when you’re in third grade, what are you going to do by the time you get to college?”

Obama added that his goal is to “reach a level of research and development that we haven’t seen since the height of the space race.” In the meantime, he said, the science fair is a reminder that the country needs to celebrate “the outstanding contributions that scientists and engineers and mathematicians are providing to us every single day. And we want you to know that you’ve got a whole country behind you as you pursue your dreams. And your success is going to be our success as well.”