There is something very reassuring about seeing the president of the United States work to address something that you see as a significant problem. I can now state from personal experience that it is even more reassuring to observe that work in person.
I had the great privilege to be a member of the press pool at yesterday’s inaugural White House Science Fair. With camera in hand, I watched and listened as President Obama spoke personally with the American student winners of various major national and international science and engineering competitions. I then stood in the audience for his speech about the science fair and about his administration’s Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) initiative.
It could easily have been sped through like so many events with so many politicians are. But it was clear from the moment Mr. Obama entered the science fair exhibit room that he wasn’t there as a politician but as a leader who — whatever you may think of his policies in general — is deeply committed to ensuring that the future sees a United States that can compete with the rest of the world in science and engineering. He spoke with each student and team for a while, and he had a real conversation with each: he listened, tried things out, examined the visual pieces of each project, and asked intelligent questions about the process and practical applications of each. He even managed to — to a degree, anyway — put the students at ease, which is not an easy task with young people standing in the White House State Dining Room talking with the president while a jumbled line of photographers and videographers vies with one-another for a good shot. One student was even able to find the nerve to ask the president for a fist bump, a request which Mr. Obama, amused if a bit surprised, obliged.
The president said a few words in the exhibit room before moving to the East Room for his scheduled, scripted speech. He spoke of the students there and others like them as the bright future of the country, and said he expected to see some of them visit the White House many years from now as Nobel Prize winners. I watched the faces of the students watching him as he said this, and I have to say that, while Mr. Obama is of course a politician and I can’t know for certain that he meant everything he said, I can tell you that the students soaked it in. If indeed any of them does return to the White House in years to come with a Nobel medal around his or her neck, a little something will be owed to this occasion, when Mr. Obama gave them a kind of support and confidence not easily found elsewhere.
The president’s speech and the fact that he’ll be appearing on MythBusters have been adequately covered elsewhere, so there’s no need for me to rehash them. I will note, however, that if I had any doubts that Mr. Obama had really paid close attention to the students, their projects and their stories, they were dispelled by the speech. You see, from my vantage point at the side of the room, I could see one of his teleprompters, so I could tell when he was on-script and when he wasn’t — and a great deal of what he said about the students and their projects was clearly off-the-cuff.
Maybe it was the surroundings — it’s hard not to be a little intimidated when you’re standing under Abraham Lincoln’s presidential portrait, at least when you’re not used to it — but I came away with a far better feeling about the future of the U.S. than I’ve had for a while. Whatever Mr. Obama’s faults may be, whatever you think about what his administration has or hasn’t done since he took office, you’d be hard-pressed to claim that he doesn’t feel strongly about science, technology and math education. And that’s a cause any geek, and especially any geek parent, should be able to support.
If you’re interested in seeing all of the photos I took of the event (i.e., not just the 37 in the gallery above), all the at-least-pretty-good ones can be viewed in this Flickr set.
All photos by Matt Blum. Huge thanks to GeekDad Brian McLaughlin for loaning me his camera, so I didn’t look like a complete novice with my wimpy point-and-shoot.