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Mentoring science students is a national priority

Published: Wednesday, April 24 2013 10:20 a.m. MDT

President Barack Obama listens to Spencer Ottarson, 19, center, and Julie Xu, 17, right, both from Williamston, Mich., as they explain their 'Offshore Rip Current Alert System (ORCA), Monday, April 22, 2013, during the White House Science Fair on the East Garden of the White House in Washington. (AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais)

Pablo Martinez Monsivais, ASSOCIATED PRESS

Students who win at science competitions don't usually get a trip to the White House, the way winners of the NCAA basketball championship do. Maybe they will from now on, though. On April 22, President Barack Obama hosted a White House Science Fair to celebrate 100 student winners of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions from 40 U.S. states.

"If you're a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too," the president said in a White House statement.

Projects on display included a bike-powered water filtration system, a portable wind turbine, cheaper bio-fuels, and something called a "space elevator," USA Today reported.

After viewing the projects and talking to budding scientists, the president said the projects were "really cool," and thanked the students "for explaining to me what the heck is going on," the story said.

At the Science Fair, Obama announced a multi-year STEM mentoring campaign called US2020, aimed at committing companies to encourage their science and technology workers to volunteer as STEM mentors.

Cisco, SanDisk and Cognizant have already joined the effort, along with several leading education nonprofit groups. US2020 is meant to make mentoring as commonplace in STEM professions as pro-bono work is within the legal profession.

"The long-term goal of US2020 will be to mobilize 1 million STEM mentors annually by the year 2020, creating millions of moments of discovery — those life changing events when children launch rockets, build robots, write a computer program, or look into the farthest reaches of the universe," the White House statement said.

Business partners have committed to scale up quality mentoring that reaches girls and minority students, groups that are under-represented in STEM fields.

Becoming a scientist or engineer happens more easily for students who have role models, according to a Forbes magazine commentary, written by corporate partners in the US2020 project.

"For children with STEM mentors in their families and neighborhoods, even a basic childhood activity like flying a kite becomes a lesson in aerodynamics, and a window into the wonders of the universe and future careers," according to the article.

However, a majority of teenagers may be discouraged from STEM careers because they don't know anyone working in these fields, and don't understand what STEM workers do. That's where US2020 comes in, the article said. The program is designed to build the mentor supply by engaging CEOs and creating volunteer programs in STEM corporations.

"Inspiring students through hands-on STEM projects is a key first step to building the STEM workforce and the informed citizenry that we need," said the commentary. "It is a social justice and national competitiveness priority."

US2020 is part of a concerted effort to strengthen the U.S. work force in STEM fields. Three million new jobs will open by 2018 in fields like medical technology, computer science and chemical engineering, with a projected gap between openings and qualified applicants of almost 2 million, according to Forbes.

EMAIL: cbaker@deseretnews.com

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