When it came to getting into the White House Science Fair, Holly Jackson had it all sewed up. Nikhil Behari, too, had just the right touch. And as for meeting President Barack Obama in person, it sent chills running up and down Harry Paul’s spine.
“No pun intended,” says Paul, who along with Jackson and Behari, was among the more than 100 students invited to exhibit at the fifth White House Science Fair, held March 23. Paul, 18, presented a novel spinal implant to treat scoliosis. For Paul the research was personal: He was born with a sideways curve to the spine that marks the condition.
“The notion that you take your own experiences and are able to apply it — what a powerful story that is,” Obama told Paul while touring the fair.
“I think it is always good to take a bad experience and if you use it to do something, it makes it a whole lot better,” Paul, of Port Washington, N.Y., replied.
The fair highlighted science and engineering projects led by students of all ages. The youngest: a team of 6-year-old girls from Tulsa, Okla. The Girl Scout Daisies created a page-turning device out of Lego. Obama granted them a special award: a group hug.
As in years past, many of the invited students previously had participated in science competitions run by Society for Science & the Public (SSP). The nonprofit organization also publishes Science News and Science News for Students. Paul won a Best of Category award in Engineering: Materials and Bioengineering and the Innovation Exploration Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) 2014. Jackson took the top award at the 2014 Broadcom MASTERS.
Jackson, 14, of San Jose, Calif., explored the science of sewing for her project. She tested 120 different combinations of fabric, thread and stitch to find the strongest.
“It was combining my passion for sewing with my passion for science,” Jackson says.
Behari, 14, was among the dozen students to present his research to the President. Previously, Behari won a second place award in technology at the 2014 Broadcom MASTERS national finals. Using a special keyboard, Behari, of Sewickley, Pa., discovered a way to authenticate user identity by analyzing the way a person types.
“It really motivates me. It pushes me to continue working on the project and on other projects,” Behari says of his opportunity to explain his work to Obama.
Among those visiting the fair was television’s Bill Nye the Science Guy. In an interview, Nye called Behari’s project a fair highlight: “It’s freaking brilliant, I have to say.”
The focus of this year’s fair was diversity. The invited students all participated previously in different science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions and organizations. These include the Broadcom MASTERS, Intel Science Talent Search (Intel STS) and Intel ISEF. SSP runs all three.
For Natalie Ng, 19, of Cupertino, Calif., her experiences in Intel STS, Intel ISEF and, now, the White House Science Fair, come with an obligation. “It is my responsibility to share my love for science and try to be an inspiration to other people to go into STEM fields,” says Ng, now in her first year at Stanford University. “That is the impact these kinds of science fairs and SSP had on me.”
Kelly Charley, 16, of Teec Nos Pos, Ariz., was a finalist in the Intel ISEF 2014 for her solar hot water heater. She designed the passive device to heat the traditional Navajo homes known as hogans. Practice made for progress before the device’s White House debut.
“It brought in a lot of different views. I was able to look at my project, reassess, and amp it up for this year’s project,” Charley says of her Intel ISEF experience.
Also at the fair, Obama announced more than $240 million in commitments from the private sector to support students in STEM fields.
“These young scientists and engineers teach us something beyond the specific topics that they are 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 is 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,” Obama said.