By Kevin Kelley
Theodore Poulos had recently taken his seat in the East Room of the White House April 29, one of 100 students from across the nation recognized for achievement in science, technology, engineering and math. He used his smartphone to take a video of the White House’s largest room. Then a White House staffer asked him to follow her.
“I thought I was in trouble,” Poulos said.
But that was not the case.
“You have a much better seat than you had before,” the staffer told him.
Poulos was soon seated along with two dozen other recognized students behind the presidential podium. When President Barack Obama entered the room to speak with the students, Poulos was the first to shake his hand.
Poulos, Jacob Hoffman and Jacob Lemanowicz – all seniors at Westlake High School – had been invited to the White House for finishing first in the Great Big Home and Garden Show’s Model Design Contest. Students from engineering and technology instructor Scott Kutz’s class have taken not only the first-place prize, but most other awards as well in the contest in recent years.
Kutz received a call a few weeks ago from Marisa Wolsky, executive producer at public television station WGHB in Boston. Wolsky, who produces the program “Design Squad,” asked Kutz if he knew of any students who should be honored at the White House’s third annual science fair.
The three drove to Washington with Principal Tim Freeman April 28, and members from the students’ families traveled to the national’s capital as well.
During the White House Science Fair, the president personally viewed about a dozen exhibits and inventions students across the nation had brought to the White House. The Westlakers’ home design was not among them, but the three seniors were among those who heard Obama speak on the importance of investing in STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education.
“If extraordinary young people like all of you can use your talents to shape the future for our families and our communities and our countries, we’ve got a responsibility to make sure that they’ve got the tools to do it,” Obama told the students.
The president announced the launch of a new AmeriCorps program focused on STEM education and an initiative in which leading U.S. technology companies encourage employees to devote 20 hours each year mentoring young science students in the STEM disciplines.
“So we need to make this a priority to train an army of new teachers in these subject areas, and to make sure that all of us as a country are lifting up these subjects for the respect that they deserve,” Obama said. “And one of the things that I’m concerned about is that, as a culture, we’re great consumers of technology, but we’re not always properly respecting the people who are in the labs and behind the scenes creating the stuff that we now take for granted. And we’ve got to give the millions of Americans who work in science and technology not only the kind of respect they deserve but also new ways to engage young people.”
Poulos, who will major in mechanical engineering at Ohio University, said he was impressed by the president’s call that students be given more opportunities for research in STEM fields. Obama also said achievers in science and engineering ought to be given the level of recognition champion athletes receive in this country.
The president made clear that STEM is the wave of the future, said Hoffman, who will study architecture at Kent State University.
The students’ invitation to the White House has given them minor celebrity status in the waning months of the school year, they said.
“Just about every teacher I have or have had has congratulated me,” said Lemanowicz, who will attend the University of Cincinnati to study computer engineering.
Kutz, who was unable to travel to Washington with his students, said the high school’s engineering and technology courses are difficult, but help prepare students for later work in any technology field. His classroom has a “wall of fame” with the names of his former students and their current jobs in the design and technology professions.
Bill Nye the Science Guy and actor LeVar Burton were among the celebrities attending the White House Science Fair. Poulos got Burton’s autograph, and Freeman told the actor he enjoys his appearances on “The Big Bang Theory.”