At the White House, a science fair is never just a science fair.
And so President Barack Obama used the occasion of the annual event to announce a series of initiatives, some backed by Silicon Valley heavyweights SanDisk and Cisco, to encourage students to pursue studies and careers in science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM.
“For America’s global competitiveness it is a must that we are at the forefront of innovation and we know that innovation gets started from STEM — science technology, engineering and math,” SanDisk CEO Sanjay Mehrotra, who attended the White House announcement, told me. “Supporting the agenda of innovation and global competiveness, it is very important that we continue a strong pipeline of talent. And that pipeline has to be supported at the elementary and middle school and high school level as well.”
One key proposal announced Monday creates an army of tech-savvy mentors coordinated by nonprofits, including Citizen Schools of Redwood City. Another launches the STEM Americorps, which will place those doing national service in non-profits that work to help STEM professionals encourage young people to pursue STEM education and careers.
Silicon Valley companies have long decried the shortage of highly-skilled home-grown engineers and technologists and so it’s good to see that some valley companies are stepping up. STEM employees at the companies will be trained in mentoring and then they’ll go into local schools to try and spark an interest among students.
“Technology professionals from the corporate technology sector as well as non-profits in education are coming together under the urging of the White House to support and promote STEM education,” Mehrotra said. “This was the launch of that initiative. It was great to see all the enthusiasm and the energy behind this initiative.”
Speaking before a crowd of science fair winners and dignitaries in the East Room, Obama suggested that all of us could find inspiration in the young scientists’ work.
“Young people like these have to make you hopeful about the future of our country,” Obama said Monday at a White House briefing . “It’s also a reminder for us, the adults, that we’ve got to do our part.”
To that end, networking company Cisco, SanDisk, a flash memory and storage company, and others companies have pledged to work to have 20 percent of their STEM professionals mentoring or teaching at least 20 hours a year by the year 2020, a program cleverly called US2020. (That’s the way the White House does things: 20, 20 by 2020.)
In an email statement, Cisco CEO John Chambers had this to say about the company’s involvement in the project:
“By 2015, it is expected that roughly 90% of jobs across all sectors will require technology skills. Therefore, it is critical that we invest today to create tomorrow’s entrepreneurs, innovators and engineers, and to ensure U.S. competitiveness,” Chambers said. “Through our involvement with US2020, Cisco will encourage employees to spend more time mentoring youth and engaging them in hands-on learning experiences, which are vital to fostering a passion for the STEM fields.”
The companies have also agreed to put up $2 million — $1 million of it from SanDisk — to launch and support the program.
Obama used his brief White House appearance to praise the efforts of science fair winners from around the country, many of whom had brought their projects to the White House.
Here are some highlights from last year while we wait for this year’s video to land.
“I want to thank these incredible young people for explaining to me what the heck is going on,” Obama joked.
Obama listed a few of the projects he’d seen, including a new treatment strategy for pancreatic cancer, a better way to produce algae as fuel and a self-cooling system incorporated into football equipment.
Also honored was Brittany Wenger, a high school student from Florida who won the Google Science Fair last year. She designed a computer program that improves cancer detection.
Mahrotra echoed the president’s praise for the work that the student scientists had done.
“It’s been an amazing experience,” he said by phone before leaving the White House.
Photo by the Associated Press