Get ready to get your geek on. It’s Science Fair Day at the White House.

 

It’s that time of year again — the annual White House Science Fair. The day when President Obama becomes geek-in-chief and young scientists from across the country get to show off their awe-inspiring inventions. This year, 100 students from 30 states will be on hand  to not only impress the president, but also chat it up with the science guy himself, Bill Nye, and Kari Byron, host of “Mythbusters” and “Head Rush.”

This year’s event, the fourth White House Science Fair, will have a special focus on getting girls involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields. Half the students at the fair today will be young women. And Valerie Jarrett and Tina Chen, who head the White House Office of Women and Girls, are set to host a roundtable with 10 girls from the science fair. That event will kick off a new series of events that will look to help bring girls together with STEM leaders from the administration and across the country.

The White House will also announce private sector efforts aimed at boosting the participation of women and girls in the sciences. Byron, of “Mythbusters” fame, will shoot PSAs focused on getting STEM mentors connected with students, particularly girls. And the American Association of University Women (AAUW), Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Verizon Foundation will launch a summer app inventor course for girls.

A report by AAUW found that in elementary, middle and high school girls and boys take science and math classes at the same rate, yet far fewer young women pursue careers in the STEM fields.  Last year, the Obama administration announced a goal of increasing the number of women and girls who go into the STEM fields — women are 24 percent of the STEM workforce.

Here are a few girl-powered projects to look out for, according to a White House memo:

  • Teen Beats Rare Cancer, Then Hunts for Cure: After surviving a bout with a rare liver cancer at age 12, Elana Simon of New York, NY, now 18, teamed up with one of the surgeons who treated her, set up shop in a medical lab, and began to collect much-needed data about the rare illness she’d endured. She gathered tissue samples from patients coping with the same cancer, fibrolamellar, performed genomic sequencing tests and found a common genetic mutation across all of the samples she collected. Elana’s results were published in the top journal Science, and formed a basis for a new Wen site, the Fibrolamellar Registry, which she built to help empower fibrolamellar patients to share their own medical data for use by researchers working to find a cure. Elana is a recent winner of the American Association for Cancer Research’s Junior Champion in Cancer Research Award. She has presented her work before an audience of 16,000 cancer researchers and is headed to Harvard to study computer science in the fall.
  • Fearless High-Schooler Doesn’t Just Design Electric Cars, She Also Races Them: Deidre Carillo, 18, of San Antonio, Tex., knows what it’s like to sit behind the wheel of an innovative electric vehicle she helped design and build, and to feel the adrenaline rush of racing it over a finish line. Diedre leads and helped found her high school’s Southwest Engineering Team, which competes annually in Florida’s Emerald Coast Electrathon — a national competition for student-built electric cars. For the first sixth months of the team’s existence, Diedre was the only female member. As driver of the team’s Dragon 1 vehicle, she helped lead her team to second place finishes in the Electrathon for two years in a row, before grabbing a first place finish in the 2014 competition this year. After graduation, Diedre plans to study public relations at Texas A&M University.
  • Football Fanatic Seeks Safer Helmet after “Aha” Moment: Maria Hanes, 19, of Santa Cruz, Calif., dreams of becoming the first female collegiate head football coach — and she’s already built up some impressive credentials. Maria served as manager and film technician for the Desert Scorpions football team during her first three years of high school at Edwards Air Force Base, aiming to learn as much as possible about the game she loves. One afternoon, she dropped her cell phone, covered with a new rubber case, and noticed that the phone didn’t break. She set out to test whether soft, impact-absorbing materials like the rubber case could be added to helmets to reduce concussion risk. Maria developed her “Concussion Cushion” science project, testing out several inner and outer cushioning materials for her players’ helmets — including gel and memory foam inserts and impact-absorbing outer coverings. Maria’s project earned her the Naval Science Award and a place at the 2013 California State Science Fair.
  • Girl-Powered Team Builds Search-and-Rescue Robot, Seeks Patent: Olivia Van Amsterdam, 16, Katelyn Sweeney, 17, and their team of student engineers from Natick, Mass., invented a 120 lb remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can help search-and-rescue dive teams search for bodies in dangerous, icy waters. Their submersible device works in waters up to 40 feet deep with temperatures of 33-45°F. With the help of their teacher and pro bono lawyers, the girls are currently working to file a U.S. patent application and hope to one day license their ROV technology. Their “InvenTeam” team presented its work at the 2013 Lemelson-MIT Program’s Eureka Fest celebration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). When not building ‘bots that can save lives, Olivia and Katelyn aim to be role models for other aspiring girl engineers — both volunteering as tutors and mentors. Katelyn will start as a freshman at MIT this fall. Olivia is excited to begin her college search.
  • Girl-Coders Build App to Help Visually Impaired Classmate: Together, Cassandra Baquero, 13, Caitlyn Gonzolez, 12, and Janessa Leija, 11 — part of an all-girl team of app-builders from Resaca Middle School in Los Fresnos, Tex. — designed an innovative solution to help one of their visually impaired classmates. The students built “Hello Navi” — an app that gives give verbal directions to help users navigate unfamiliar spaces based on measurements of a user’s stride and digital building-blueprints. The service makes use of common digital tools such as a compass and optical Braille readers and can be tailored for use in any building. The Girls’ invention made them one of eight teams to win the recent Verizon Innovative App Challenge, and also earned their school a $20,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation.

If you want to watch the event, which begins at about 11 a.m. EDT, go here: http://www.whitehouse.gov/science-fair

UPDATE:


Valerie Jarrett and Tina Tchen met with a group of girls and young women to discuss how to keep other girls and young women interested in the STEM fields. (Nia-Malika Henderson)

She The People got to sit in on a roundtable discussion between senior White House officials and a group of young women and girls from all over the country who are in town for the annual White House Science Fair, one of President Obama’s favorite days of the year.  (Apparently he is a big fan of the show “MythBusters” too). This year’s fair put a special focus on women and girls, as the White House looks to expand the diversity of women in the STEM fields. Research shows that when women do go into the STEM fields they earn 33 percent more than in non-STEM jobs. But, as several of the young women said at the roundtable, girls tend to drop out before they reach the highest and most lucrative levels in STEM professions.  In many ways, Jarrett was there in a note-taking role, looking to get a sense of how the girls and young women came to their interest in STEM fields and how to keep the interest strong and even pass it on to others.

These were some of the takeaways:

  • Mentors matter–Several of the young women mentioned that they had role models who took an interest in science and math and sparked their own interest. Brenna Wallin of Lexington, KY found the role models in her own house. “My sisters inspired me,” she said, of her early days experimenting.  “I started in second grade…putting baking powder in cakes…to see what would happen.  They did not taste good.”  Wallin, 13, was a 2013 national finalist for her project “Nuclear Nerka: Detection of Ionic Radiation in Pacific Sockeye Salmon.”  As well, cultural examples matter and as well.  Chelsea Allen talked about growing up and watching a certain TV show.  “I love science. It was sparked by my brothers and “MythBusters,” she said.  “I would sit on my little princess chair and watch that.”
  •  Perceptions matter–Remember high school and how what seemed to matter most was how popular you were and whether boys liked you?  Right, it’s better to forget all that.  But the girls who gathered with Jarrett spoke out about their very familiar experiences of trying to be cool and hold on to their love of science.  “Fitting into a social environment was my top priority,” said Zarin Rahman, who will go to Harvard in the fall.  “Being a girl you want popularity and friends and you want boys to come talk to you. Let’s be honest.  We need to show [other girls] that science is cooler than boys.”
  • Teaching matters–Admit it. In class, the science teacher often sounded like Charlie Brown’s teacher.  And this does in fact turn students off from learning.  Several girls said that as the work got more complicated, interest for some girls might wane because self-esteem gets tied to grades.  So, “I don’t like math,” is really “I haven’t figured out how to be good at math.” That’s where hands on teaching comes in. “The reason I stayed in STEM was because the curriculum changed,” said Diserae Sanders of Phoenix, Arizona, who competed on the robotics team. “It was more hands on instead of reading out of textbook.”
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