President Obama plays with a Hoberman Sphere as he talks with 12-year-old Peyton Robertson, of Ft. Lauderdale, Fla., during the White House Science Fair. / JIM WATSON, AFP/Getty Images
WASHINGTON -- President Obama told winners of the White House Science Fair on Tuesday that their work is more valuable than that of any sports champion.
"What's happening here is more important," Obama said, saying that science can help society cure diseases, forge new sources of energy and create new jobs for the 21st century.
Obama, who noted that he hosted the football champion Seattle Seahawks just last week, called the science fair "one of my favorite things all year long," and announced new initiatives in "STEM" education devoted to science, technology, energy, and math.
In singling out some of the science fair winners, Obama praised Texas middle school students who developed a phone app that helps a near-blind fellow student navigate the school facility.
Saying that administration programs are designed to help more girls pursue science and math, Obama highlighted a young woman from Oklahoma who developed a "concussion cushion" for football helmets.
Obama also honored a Fort Lauderdale student who designed re-useable sand bags to help with flood control, and re-tractable training wheels for bikes.
Another group of students developed a robot that search for people and objects in freezing waters.
Hoping to see more of these kinds of projects, Obama announced a new $35 million Education Department program in which school districts can compete for grants to finance STEM teacher training programs. The administration's goal is to train 100,000 educators in science technology, engineering, and math.
Officials are also expanding what Obama called "the STEM AmeriCorps program" to help teach STEM courses to 18,000 low-income students.
A STEM mentoring project will be undertaken in seven communities: Chicago; Philadelphia; San Francisco; Allentown, Pa., Indianapolis; the Research Triangle Park in North Carolina; and Wichita.
In praising this year's winners, Obama contrasted their efforts with some of his science projects when he was a student.
"One year, I accidentally killed some plants," he said.
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