The message from the White House has never been clearer. The commitment to STEM education — science, technology, engineering and math — is critical to the future growth of the United States.
How strong is that commitment? Consider that, just hours before a 16-day government shutdown that dominated the attention of every citizen across the land, President Barack Obama kept one very important meeting on his calendar. On Oct. 1, he met with the 30 middle school students who were in Washington, D.C., as finalists of the Broadcom MASTERS. Broadcom’s flagship engineering and science fair competition funded by its Foundation.
The presidential visit had been planned weeks in advance, but was kept secret from the students and their families until they arrived in Washington. Though their day had already included a breakfast meeting, four hours of challenge activities and a meeting with professional engineers and scientists to explore STEM careers, every MASTERS finalist was bouncing with energy when it came time to board bus for the formal visit to the White House.
“It was a really special experience and very exciting,” said MASTERS finalist Mihir Garimella, 14, of Pittsburgh.
The students began their visit at the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, where they met Dr. John P. Holdren, Assistant to the President for Science and Technology, Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology (PCAST). After congratulating the students their achievements, Dr. Holdren asked them to share their “best ideas” about how to improve STEM education. Then the thirty finalists engaged in a high-level policy discussion with a dozen on Holdren’s top advisors.
Broadcom Chief Executive Scott McGregor, Broadcom Foundation Executive Director Paula Golden and Society for Science and the Public Interim Chief Executive Rick Bates and MASTERS Director Allie Hewlett joined the finalists for a walk to the fabled White House Rose Garden to meet the President.
What they thought would be a formal meeting turned into a rare informal gathering with the Leader of the Free World. The President called out projects and personal interests of each student (he took special note of the project on honey bees, since the First Lady keeps beehives) —praising their work and doling out high-fives for encouragement.
Then came the amazing moment when the President said “why don’t you come and visit my office?” The finalists, accompanied with Broadcom’s McGregor were treated to a personalized tour of the Oval Office, with presidential commentary on the historical artifacts lining the office walls, including the original emancipation proclamation, the first U.S. patent and some lore about the presidential desk, known as The Resolute Desk.
Krystal Horton, 11, of Menifee, Calif. said Obama even showed them the infamous “red button,” though he jokingly declined to say exactly what would happen if any of the over-eager students were to press it.
According to Brenna Wallin, 13, of Lexington, Ken., said she asked the President “if there were secret passages in the [Oval Office].”
“He said there were but he made a joke and said he couldn’t show me,” she said.
Jokes aside, also on the agenda was talk about how to keep students engaged in STEM subjects, and how that engagement can translate into important careers that help the U.S. stay competitive.
“The President’s enthusiasm for the MASTERS finalists’ outstanding achievements at such a young age was palpable,” Broadcom Foundation’s Golden said.
“The father of middle schoolers himself and a long-standing advocate of project-based math, science and engineering competitions as valuable tools for attacking the nation’s STEM education deficit, the President enthusiastically endorsed the efforts and accomplishments of these young men and women,” she said.