White House focuses on women at annual science fair

This year's White House Science Fair includes a special focus on girls and women who have excelled in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) subjects as the administration looks to boost both interest in those areas and the gender ratios of the students who are studying them.

"Our job is to make sure that you've got everything you need to continue on this path of discovery and experimentation and innovation," the president said.

White House science fair shines light on women in science

Despite his love of sports, Mr. Obama called the science fair "more important" than a visit from the Superbowl champion Seattle Seahawks last week.

"As a society we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least at least as much as we do Superbowl winners," he said. "Superstar biologists and engineers, and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don't always get the attention that they deserve but they're what's going to transform our society."

More than 100 students representing 30-plus states are attending the fair, including 30 student teams that will be exhibiting their work. The projects range from cancer and flu research to robots that can search for bodies in cold, dangerous waters or improve the accuracy of basketball players' shooting.

One of the teens who helped build the remotely operated vehicle that assists search-and-rescue dive teams is bound for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology next year, at which point she and her teammates hope to have a patent on their design.

"What happens a lot is people will see a hole in the ice and call 911 whether or not they've seen someone fall through and that puts a diver in a really dangerous situation," Katelyn Sweeney, 17, explained to CBS News' Nancy Cordes.

Obama tours White House science fair exhibits

In her quest to become the first female collegiate head football coach, 19-year-old Maria Hanes of Santa Cruz, Calif., helped design a football helmet that can better prevent concussions by adding gel and memory foam inserts. She was inspired by seeing a rubber case protect her cell phone when she dropped it.

"The gel really absorbed the impact and dispersed it, while the foam kind of absorbed the impact but sent it right back," she explained.

Eight of the 12 projects the president will view at the Science Fair were conducted by or included a woman on the team. According to the Commerce Department, women hold less than a quarter of all STEM jobs despite making up nearly half of the U.S. workforce and half of all college-educated American workers.

The president led his remarks with a confession about his own science prowess-- or lack thereof.

"When I was growing up my science fair projects were not as successful as the ones here. One year I accidentally killed some plants that were part of my experiment. Another time a bunch of mice escaped in my grandmother's apartment. These experiments did not take me straight to the White House and instead I have a chance now to see what real young scientists can do, and they were just amazing."

"And by the way," he added, "There were no rodents loose in the White House."

As part of the "Educate to Innovate" initiative, the White House is announcing a new $35 million Department of Education competition that will help further the White House goal of training 100,000 new STEM teachers, the expansion of the STEM AmeriCorps program to improve science and math education for 18,000 low-income students this summer, and a national STEM mentoring effort that will start in seven cities with technology, media and non-profit partners.

For a list of exhibits the president will view at this year's White House Science Fair, click to the next page.

Below is a list of the exhibits President Obama will view at this year's science fair, as provided by the White House:

After surviving a bout with a rare liver cancer at age 12, Elana Simon of New York City, now 18, teamed up with one of the surgeons who treated her, set up shop in a medical lab, and began to collect much-needed data about the rare illness she'd endured. She gathered tissue samples from patients coping with the same cancer, fibrolamellar, performed genomic sequencing tests, and found a common genetic mutation across all of the samples she collected. Elana's results were published in the top journal Science, and formed a basis for a new website, the Fibrolamellar Registry, which she built to help empower fibrolamellar patients to share their own medical data for use by researchers working to find a cure. Elana is a recent winner of the American Association for Cancer Research's Junior Champion in Cancer Research Award. She has presented her work before an audience of 16,000 cancer researchers and is headed to Harvard to study computer science in the fall.

Deidre Carillo, 18, of San Antonio knows what it's like to sit behind the wheel of an innovative electric vehicle she helped design and build, and to feel the adrenaline rush of racing it over a finish line. Diedre leads and helped found her high school's Southwest Engineering Team, which competes annually in Florida's Emerald Coast Electrathon--a national competition for student-built electric cars. For the first sixth months of the team's existence, Diedre was the only female member. As driver of the team's Dragon 1 vehicle, she helped lead her team to second place finishes in the Electrathon for two years in a row, before grabbing a first place finish in the 2014 competition this year. After graduation, Diedre plans to study public relations at Texas A&M University.

Peyton Robertson, 12, of Fort Lauderdale, Fla., has seen firsthand the damages wrought by salt-water flooding in his own South Florida community--a problem that costs the region millions of dollars each year. Peyton built an innovative prototype "sandless" sandbag that can better protect flood zones, like his own community, against salt-water damage. His design is also lightweight, easy to store, and more effective at keeping water out than existing designs. Peyton was named America's Top Young Scientist at the 2013 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge and received $25,000 for his innovative design.

Raytheon and the New England Patriots have partnered to create a science fair that encourages Boys and Girls Club members from across New England to explore the math and science behind the sports they love. For the Fair, the Hudson, Massachussetts-based "Catapult Court CEOs"--a team of 11 to 14-year-old students represented at the White House by Brook Bohn, 14, Daisjaughn Bass, 13, and Gerry McManus, 13 -- engineered and built a custom-made catapult to determine whether they could improve basketball-shot performance. By shooting over and again from an individual's optimal distance and angle from the hoop, the CEOs set out to prove that maximizing accuracy and precision when shooting baskets provides the highest level of performance on the basketball court. Their invention earned the team second prize at Ratheyon's and the Patriots' 2013 Science of Sports Science Fair.

Lydia Wolfe, 16, and John Moore, 19, are part of FIRST Robotics Team #1739, "The Chicago Knights" - an ambitious crew of 6th - 12th graders from across Chicago, IL, led by a dedicated mentor, Jackie Moore. Together, the team's mantra is: "The game is not the prize...it's the changes the game brings about in the kids". What started as a few people working on robots in the basement of the Ford City Mall is now a thriving team working at Level Up - a shared learning space that is open to any student interested in STEM-based after-school programs, summer camps, and "making." Level Up is...literally... a level up from where this FIRST team started. They team moved upstairs to a bigger, brighter space in the Mall last year.

After following news of the 2009 swine flu outbreaks, Eric Chen, 18, of San Diego decided there was something he could do to help. Eric took on a research project aimed at finding ways to protect people from dangerous influenza viruses such as H5N1 and H7N9, which pose a threats to populations around the world. As part of a microbiology project, Eric identified new drug candidates for the treatment of influenza--research that may lead to a new class of anti-flu medicines that could protect against a flu pandemic while new vaccines are being developed. Eric's potentially game-changing work earned him the grand prizes at the 2013 Google Science Fair and Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology, as well as places in the 2014 Intel Science Talent Search and 2013 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

Maria Hanes, 19, of Santa Cruz, Calif., dreams of becoming the first female collegiate head football coach--and she's already built up some impressive credentials. Maria served as manager and film technician for the Desert Scorpions football team during her first three years of high school at Edwards Air Force Base, aiming to learn as much as possible about the game she loves. One afternoon, she dropped her cell phone, covered with a new rubber case, and noticed that the phone didn't break. She set out to test whether soft, impact-absorbing materials like the rubber case could be added to helmets to reduce concussion risk. Maria developed her "Concussion Cushion" science project, testing out several inner and outer cushioning materials for her players' helmets--including gel and memory foam inserts and impact-absorbing outer coverings. Maria's project earned her the Naval Science Award and place at the 2013 California State Science Fair.

Olivia Van Amsterdam, 16, Katelyn Sweeney, 17, and their team of student engineers from Natick, Mass., invented a 120 lb remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that can help search-and-rescue dive teams search for bodies in dangerous, icy waters. Their submersible device works in waters up to 40 feet deep with temperatures of 33-45°F. With the help of their teacher and pro bono lawyers, the girls are currently working to file a U.S. patent application and hope to one day license their ROV technology. Their "InvenTeam" team presented its work at the 2013 Lemelson-MIT Program's Eureka Fest celebration at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). When not building 'bots that can save lives, Olivia and Katelyn aim to be role models for other aspiring girl engineers--both volunteering as tutors and mentors. Katelyn will start as a freshman at MIT this fall. Olivia is excited to begin her college search.

Together, Cassandra Baquero, 13, Caitlyn Gonzolez, 12, and Janessa Leija, 11--part of an all-girl team of app-builders from Resaca Middle School in Los Fresnos, Texas--designed an innovative solution to help one of their visually impaired classmates. The students built "Hello Navi" - an app that gives give verbal directions to help users navigate unfamiliar spaces based on measurements of a user's stride and digital building-blueprints. The service makes use of common digital tools such as a compass and optical Braille readers and can be tailored for use in any building. The Girls' invention made them one of eight teams to win the recent Verizon Innovative App Challenge, and also earned their school a $20,000 grant from the Verizon Foundation.

Noting the sobering statistic that Ethiopia has the highest rate of pedestrian deaths by vehicle in the world, Felege Gebru, 18,and Karen Fan, 17, of Newton, Mass., designed a pedestrian alert system for use in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, that alerts drivers to crossing pedestrians and helps pedestrians safely cross congested roads. The invention, designed to be powered by solar energy, uses a dual-sensor method to calculate the arrival time of oncoming vehicles and indicate safer crossing times to pedestrians. Felege and Karen are leaders of the Newton North High School "InvenTeam" -which works on prototype solutions to be showcased each June at the Lemelson-MIT Program's EurekaFest event. Both team members are naturalized U.S. citizens. Felege is a freshman studying Computer Science and Visual Arts at Brown University. Karen is a high-school senior and captain of her school's badminton team.

Nicolas Badila, 15, a home-schooled student from Jonesboro, Georgia, created his own STEM-themed virtual world, STEMville, where students can pick a character, play challenging games, and improve their STEM skills. Nicolas spends much of his free time captaining a robotics team--the"Steampunk Afros" --with the Hundred Black Men of Atlanta initiative--an organization focused on community empowerment and supporting Atlanta's underprivileged youth. He also leads a computer science and robotics program within his homeschooling group. In the future, Nicolas hopes to work in robotics and open a center to teach kids computer languages, game development, and robotics. STEMville earned Nicolas the title of Middle School Open Platform Winner at the National STEM Video Game Challenge.

Avery Dodson, 6, Natalie Hurley, 8,Miriam Schaffer, 8, Claire Winton, 8, and Lucy Claire Sharp, 8, members of Girl Scout Troop 2612 of Tulsa, Okla., put their preparedness skills into action as part of the JuniorFIRST Lego League's Disaster Blaster Challenge--which invites thousands of elementary-school-aged students from across the country to explore how simple machines, motorized parts, engineering, and math can help solve problems posed by natural disasters like floods or earthquakes. Recalling the recent, damaging summer floods in Estes Park, Colorado, the Troop noticed that first responders weren't able to easily reach certain communities because bridges had been washed out - and set out to design a solution. The girls invented the "Flood Proof Bridge," and built a model of their idea--not only mechanizing the bridge using motors and the correct gear ratios, but also developing, from scratch, a simple computer program to automatically retract the bridge when flood conditions are detected by a motion sensor embedded in the river bed. The girls are excited to keep brainstorming about new designs to help solve big challenges.