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Beyond the robot: White House Science Fair celebrates a nation of nerds


Members of Team Rock-It at the White House Science Fair. (Images by Rob Pegoraro/Yahoo Tech)

Even in the White House, the robots might have been expected. But the rockets and the live — and well-behaved! — chicken were something else entirely.

That odd assortment of exhibits, along with the dozens of grade school and high school students responsible for them, filled the rooms, halls, and gardens at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. on Wednesday for President Obama’s sixth and final White House Science Fair.

The event may not have featured anything as goofy as the marshmallow cannon that caught Obama’s eye at the 2012 fair, but the nation’s nerd-in-chief said he’d miss the gathering anyway.

“I’ve just been able to see the unbelievable ingenuity and passion and curiosity and brainpower of America’s next generation and all the cool things that they do,” Obama told a crowd gathered in the East Room of the White House. “I’ve also, by the way, had the chance to see an alarming number of robots. None have caused me any harm up until now.”

The idea behind the Science Fair hasn’t changed since the event began in 2010: to celebrate the achievements of American students and encourage others to pursue STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) classes and careers.

While the fair is pitched as a nonpolitical event, Obama’s references to such worthy goals as “combating climate change,” “writing code that leads to social change,” and “working through some of the structural biases that exist in science" might not get enthusiastic applause from everyone in Washington these days.

The real rebuke to much of today’s political chatter, however, came from the student exhibitors themselves. As long as they represent the future of the United States, the country is not only not headed for disaster, but also will likely be just fine. Here are some of those kids and their projects.


Varun Vallabhaneni shows one inspiration for FireArmor.

VAXXWAGON: Anurudh Ganesan, 16, of Clarksburg, Md., said the idea for this vaccine-delivery cart began when his grandparents had to carry him 10 miles in India to get vaccinated — and then had to turn around and go home because the meds had spoiled. Pushing this cart, built from $100 or so in parts, drives a piston that in turn can keep up to 210 vials of vaccine safely cool. “This could vaccinate an entire village,” Ganesan said. We should be able to find out soon: “I would say, within three months, I could get this out into the field.”

Team Rock-It: These Durham, N.C., students build rockets that soar as high as a mile (regulations prohibit higher flights) and won a spot in NASA’s Student Launch Initiative. One of their innovations is an internal flywheel that keeps the rocket pointed straight up, explained Samantha Armistead, 17, as her colleagues excitedly Snapchatted about seeing Bill Nye the Science Guy. So how did they find out they’d won a spot in the Science Fair? “Our teacher just emailed all of us, ‘Hey, by the way, you got into the White House.’”

FireArmor: The idea for this insulating layer for firefighting gear came from a simple instant cold pack sold to ease sore muscles: What if, team members in Centreville, Va., and Gahanna, Oh., wondered, you could use the same endothermic chemical reaction to absorb heat? The fiber they developed can withstand temperatures of 1,000 degrees Celsius for up to five minutes. Varun Vallabhaneni, 17, said the technology — they have a patent application in progress — could also have industrial and military applications.

Heritage Hens: Georgetown, Del., high school junior Mikayla Ockels wanted to find out which breed of pasture-raised chicken would be the most profitable egg layer. So she gathered data. A lot of it. “Every morning and every night, I would weigh each chicken,” she said. “I would use a surveillance camera to match each chicken with the eggs that they had laid that day … and I would calculate how much feed they needed to produce each of their eggs.” Result: The Rhode Island Red is apparently the free-range fowl of choice.

BEACON: Hannah Herbst, 15, of Boca Raton, Fla., began corresponding with a pen pal in Ethiopia when she was in the fourth grade. A growing awareness of her correspondent’s hardships led her to research and build this prototype clean-energy device, which floats on the ocean and generates electricity as the motion of the water turns a series of wheels. We can only hope this will have better luck than prior attempts at wave-born energy, a concept that’s thwarted grownups for many years.

Custom prosthetic leg: This team from Aurora, Col., set out to build a better prosthetic leg for a local veteran that would let him skateboard and hike. Many rounds of 3-D-printed prototypes later, they won Samsung’s Solve For Tomorrow contest. Like the North Carolina rocketeers, they were a little surprised to get an invite to Washington. Said Simon-Peter Frimpong, 13: “We got an email literally — Monday? Yeah, Monday.”

Robot subway cleaner: “Our problem that we want to tackle as New York City students is the accumulation of trash on the tracks that cause train delays and make us late for school,” explained Si Ya “Wendy” Ni, 18. The small-scale prototype they demoed at the White House easily inhaled a bunch of pingpong balls. But the full-size version will be capable of dealing with anything the NYC subway serves up — rats included, Ni said.


President Obama speaks at the Science Fair.

After a couple of hours of talking to these budding scientists and capitalists, I wasn’t thinking too favorably about my own high school achievements. But at least I had some company in that regard. As the most powerful man in the world put it in his speech: “The only problem with the science fair is, it makes me feel a little inadequate.”

Email Rob at rob@robpegoraro.com; follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.