Updated: 5:45 p.m.
The White House is hosting a Student Film Festival today, the first ever and the latest effort in his ConnectED project -- a presidential partnership with private companies to expand technology and broadband access to 99 percent of students in the United States within five years.
On February 4, President Obama announced that companies had pledged $750 million in services for ConnectED: Verizon and AT&T said they'd help expand high-speed Internet access; Sprint offered to give Internet access to 50,000 underprivileged kids; Microsoft plans to give away 12 million copies of Microsoft Office; and Apple will donate $100 million worth of iPads and Macbooks and other products. Other companies pledged their support, and today Adobe and Prezi joined the effort. Adobe will give $300 million worth of free software, like Photoshop Elements, to teachers and students, while Prezi is donating $100 million worth of presentation software.
The Student Film Festival was announced last November, and the 16 short films that will be screened at the White House today were chosen out of 2,500 submissions that show how schools have used technology to supplement learning in STEM -- science, technology, engineering, and math -- fields. Pushing students into STEM has also been one of Obama's big education goals -- in 2009, he helped raise $700 million for the Educate to Innovate project, and in 2012 his administration started the STEM Master Teacher Corps.
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Kal Penn, Bill Nye, and American Film Institue president Bob Gazzale will present the finalist videos, and Conan O'Brien will address the crowd via video. Tyson, a astrophysicist popular on Twitter and director of the Hayden Planetarium, joked in a recent New Yorker profile when explaining the importance of talking with students, "I could be on the phone in my office to the White House -- 'Barack, I've got to call you back.'" The author of the New Yorker piece, Rebecca Mead, added in a parenthetical, "In fact, Tyson is not on first-name terms with the President, though he went to a White House Christmas party this year."
Students will also get a sneak peek of Tyson's new Fox show, "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," which is a followup to Carl Sagan's 1980 series.
Nye has been sort of deputized as chief explainer of science in the past few weeks, debating the founder of the Creation Museum in early February and going on Meet the Press to defend climate change research on February 16. Penn, an actor well-known for roles on "House" and the "Harold and Kumar" movies, is currently on the White House Committee on the Arts and Humanities. He previously served as associate director of the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Most of the student videos are focused on showing how schools use technology around the country, so high-tech teaching is the highlight, not the filmmaking. However, some of the videos are fun watches regardless of their promotional intent, like this one by high-school sophomore Tiffany Lin, who's from Fremont, California
Stop-motion Transformers answering questions about the meaning of life -- what's not to like.
First graders from Silver Spring, MD made a video about how technology has changed over the years. In the past, "all you could use is a piece of chalk and you would get chalk on your hands." As the next kid says, "that is old school." According to these first-grade historians, you also had to use a feather and ink to write back in the day.
Now, they have stuff like the Promethean board, which "makes stuff bigger," among other uses. In the future, the first graders think Promethean boards will have mustaches. They will probably have butt massagers too. Also keyboard hats.
A 17-year-old student from Asheville, N.C., Kira Bursky, made a video about how a fictional foreign-exchange student could stay connected to home (via Skype, of course), and tell classmates about her home in Malaysia (via iPhone, of course).
Other videos will just make you feel old. Students from Chula Vista, California laughed at how people used to raise money with lemonade stands and bake sales, while raising tens of thousands of dollars with their Kickstarter project.
Other highlights include classrooms from the future that look a bit like Minority Report, kids using 3-D printers, astronaut suits, continent-spanning robot collaboration and the obligatory 80s influenced song used for a class project.
Correction: Adobe is donating Photoshop Elements, not Photoshop, to the ConnectED effort.