Meet the Students at the White House Science Fair

Earlier this morning, President Obama set aside 25 minutes in his schedule between meeting with senior advisers and speaking to the press to view science fair projects in the White House's State Dining Room. The sixteen projects on display came from all over the country and were the work of students who had won a range of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions over the past year.

Announced last November, the White House Science Fair kicks off a week of activities that will end with the first ever USA Science and Engineering Festival Expo on the National Mall this coming weekend. Organized by 850 science organizations, the expo is meant to promote the president's message that technological inquiry is critical for the future of America's economic wellbeing.

"If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House," Obama said last year when announcing the science fair. "Well, if you're a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware of software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too."

The White House put out a press release with basic details about all of the exhibits at the fair (see the complete list below), but we've put together a closer look at some of our favorite projects.

Fair1.jpgAnika Patel and Angela Riggins, both eighth-graders from the Forest Ridge School of the Sacred Heart in Seattle, won first place at the Toshiba ExploraVision Awards earlier this year for their work on a recycling system that reuses paper that has already been printed on. The students developed a way to bind organic renewable pigments to the paper so that it could be used multiple times. "The EPPIC (Ecological Paper Printer and Ink Collector) laser printer system ... extracts the ink from the paper by reducing the graphene surface contact area and then reuses the collected ink and paper to make new prints," according to Toshiba's press release. The EPPIC system has its own website, which offers a series of next steps for getting the machine off the drawing board and into the hands of American consumers who are currently using 1.2 trillion sheets of paper in their households per year.

Fair2.jpgThe Inventioneers are a homeschooled team from Londonberry, New Hampshire, who took home top honors at the 2010 FIRST LEGO League World Festival for their SMARTwheel, a special steering wheel meant to combat the problem of texting while driving. The team, all between the ages of nine and fourteen, completed a special program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and are already working on a second-generation prototype of their invention. "SMART stands for Safe Motorist Alert for Restriction Texting," FIRST explained. "This invention is a sensor-laden steering wheel cover that detects texting behavior and emits alerts to bring the driver's attention away from texting and back to the road. Future optional features include data collection and notification of employers, parents, or insurers of the driver's unsafe behavior behind the wheel."

Fair3.jpgAmy Chyao, a junior at Williams High School in Richardson, Texas, took home $75,000 earlier this year when she won the first-place Gordon E. Moore Award at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Just sixteen years old, Chyao is working on developing innovative approaches to cancer research. She won for building "a photosensitizer for photodynamic therapy (PDT), an emerging cancer treatment which uses light energy to activate a drug that kills cancer calls," Intel explained. Photosensitizers transform light into other forms of energy, which is critical for this therapy as ultraviolet light, which was previously used, could damage the tissues of cancer patients. The Metroplex Math Circle offers more details about Chyao's work.

Fair4.jpgA freshman at the California Institute of Technology, Erika DeBenedictis presented at the White House Science Fair after winning another top prize from Intel. From Albuquerque, DeBenedictis built software designed to improve spacecraft travel. "DeBenedictis' research played off the fact that the gravitational influence and movements of planets create 'easy transit routes' through the solar system," explained MSNBC, which described DeBenedictis as a whiz kid. "Plotting a course that uses such routes can help spacecraft move faster and use less fuel. The software that DeBenedictis developed is consistent with NASA's concept of developing 'Interplanetary Superhighways' for future space probes."

Images: 1: Toshiba ExploraVision; 2: The Inventioneers; 3. Intel; 4: Intel.

The complete list of exhibits at the White House Science Fair:

Student Team Invents Motorized Chair for Classmate with Disabilities. Diego Vazquez and Antonio Hernandez hail from Phoenix, Arizona and represent Caesar Chavez High School's InvenTeam, one of fifteen schools selected nationwide. They won a grant from Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a motorized chair for positioning medically fragile students during therapies and daily living activities. InvenTeam is a national grants program designed to excite the next generation of inventors and problem solvers through hands-on learning, while encouraging an inventive culture in schools and communities.

Middle School Student with a Winning Model Solar Car. A freshman at Central Catholic High School, Mikayla Nelson hails from Billings, Montana and represents the Will James Middle School team with their solar car. Mikayla helped build the carbon-fiber vehicle from scratch, and it won first place in the design document and fifth in the race at the Department of Energy's Junior Solar Sprint, which is a model car race to students with a "hands-on" engineering experience.

Research on Interplanetary Travel that Wins Top Research Award.A freshman at the California Institute of Technology, Erika DeBenedictis hails from Albuquerque, New Mexico and won the Intel Science Talent Search's top award in 2010. She developed a software navigation system to help improve spacecraft travel through the solar system from her research on gravity and planetary movement. The Intel Science Talent Search invites the country's most promising young innovators to participate in America's oldest and most prestigious pre-collegiate science competition to tackle challenging scientific questions through original research and demonstrate the ability to think critically and solve problems.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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