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.

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.

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.

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    Rebecca Kaplan covers the 2012 presidential campaign for CBS News and National Journal.