The day after President Obama delivered his fourth State of the Union address, a group of school-aged people gathered at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building to ask questions of some of the nation’s leading technologists.
Reporters remained in the back of the room, but the tough questions during the event came from the participants up front.
The panelists included John Holdren, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, Lori Garver, deputy administrator of NASA, and Todd Park, the nation’s chief technology officer. Also present, and fresh off their appearance in the first lady’s guest box at the State of the Union, were Jack Andraka, the 2012 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair grand prize winner, and Bobak Ferdowsi (aka NASA’s “Mohawk Guy”), flight director for the Mars Curiosity Rover.
The State of Science, Technology, Engineering and Math — or STEM — event started out calmly enough. Holdren highlighted the two science fairs that had been hosted at the White House and how Obama “got down and dirty with kids and their experiments,” forcing dignitaries to wait. Park talked about how he thought data and apps were “beautiful” and how he was “head-over-heels, madly, passionately in love with STEM,” encouraging the young people in the audience to pursue STEM to do “unearthly things.”
Then, it was the kids’ turn.
The adults in the audience could be heard tittering, and in some cases gasping in surprise, after a young boy asked whether the U.S. government would bring Germany’s education standards to the United States.
Science fairs, pshaw, these kids wanted to talk policy.
“We’re a different country,” said Holdren, “I don’t know that we will import Germany’s approach exactly.”
“This is a young man who clearly listened to the president’s State of the Union address,” he added.
Then came a question on how the private sector will influence the future of spaceflight.
In answer to this, NASA’s Garver reminded the audience that Ferdowsi, who works at JPL, was actually a contractor, not a NASA civil servant. “You might not actually all work for the government,” she said, addressing aspiring space travelers, engineers and scientists.
“Mr. Bobak, your mohawks are really cool,” started one questioner, before turning to Garver and, in one of the most artful ways to query someone about their age, asked how long it took her “to get to [her] current status.”
Garver said she’d been on her “exciting path” for about 35 years, since graduating from high school. “You can do the math,” she told the audience to light laughter from the adults.
You could almost hear the younger attendees, crunching the numbers.
Another young audience member asked whether Curiosity had found anything on Mars besides evidence of water.
This one was fielded by Ferdowsi, who mentioned the rover’s most recent activity drilling into a rock on the planet’s surface. “Give us another couple weeks so we can actually take that sample in and analyze it,” said Ferdowsi, “I think it will be really cool.”
But a majority of the questions, including one about the ramifications of NASA budget cuts, and the importance of bi- and multilingual education on international collaboration in science and engineering, were fielded by Holdren.
“Too many of these questions are being lobbed in my court,” he eventually said to light laughter.
“Some of them,” he continued, “have burning fuses on them.”
The students assembled at the White House came from at least one of the nation’s strongest-performing schools — Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, which is located in Fairfax County — home to some of the nation’s highest earners.
After the question-and-answer session ended. Ferdowsi said he thought it went “great.”
“The kids were asking all kinds good questions, as usual — as I kind of expected,” said Ferdowsi.
“Students ask tougher questions than most people do.”
“They do their homework or they’re really interested in this stuff generally. They really understand subjects — sometimes better than I do,” continued Ferdowsi when asked whether he was surprised by the level of sophistication.
In a short aside, Andraka also said he felt good about the event.
“It was pretty fun,” said the 16-year-old after a circle of assembled fans had dispersed.
Just the day before, Andraka had been fielding questions from the commander in chief. “He asked a lot of questions, so it was really awesome talking to the president about your science work.”
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