13-year-old Jasper Hugunin, of Mercer Island, participated in Tuesday's White House science fair, where he showed off a computer game he had created. It was part of the Obama administration's effort to lift American students' performance in math and science.
WASHINGTON — When Jasper Hugunin was 10, he wrote a computer program to quiz himself on multiplication and to time his answers. It was not, Jasper said, the best ticket to popularity in fifth grade.
But on Tuesday, the Mercer Island eighth-grader did something indisputably cool: He got to show off at the White House an award-winning computer game he had created.
Jasper was one of more than 100 students from around the nation invited to showcase their projects at the second White House Science Fair. The event was the Obama administration’s latest effort to lift U.S. students’ chronically mediocre performance in science and math.
President Obama toured nine displays set up in the State Dining Room and the Red Room, all winning entries from among 40 national science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions. Obama test-fired a marshmallow from a compressed air cannon and admired a Los Angeles-student-turned-entrepreneur’s ecological sugar packets that dissolve. The president suggested Starbucks could use the patent-pending packets.
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Obama then moved on to the East Room. There, the clearly impressed president told the students, families and educators that “it’s not every day you have robots running all over your house. I’m trying to figure out how you got through the metal detectors.”
Obama announced that his 2013 budget request next week will earmark $80 million to better train science and math teachers. An additional $22 million has been pledged by 14 organizations, including the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, to help mint 100,000 effective STEM teachers over the next decade.
The shortage of both STEM graduates and educators in the United States is well known. A report released simultaneously by the President’s Council of Advisors in Science and Technology said the nation will need to produce 1 million more STEM graduates in the next 10 years to match the jobs demand. Yet those are some of the toughest subjects to master; the report said fewer than 40 percent of college entrants who intended to major in a STEM field complete the degree.
The U.S. particularly lags behind other developed nations in math. In 2009, American 15-year-olds ranked 27th of 34 countries in the Programme for International Student Assessment, far behind South Korea, Finland and Switzerland and trailed only by Italy, Spain, Greece, Israel, Turkey, Chile and Mexico.
Jasper, now 13 and a student at Islander Middle School, was one of 12 winners of the National STEM Video Game Challenge for fifth- through eighth-graders last year. Jasper’s game, Robot Commander, allows players to maneuver a robot toward a target by writing code, such as f (4) to move forward four spaces.
The judges, who fielded 500 entries, lauded Jasper’s game for being enticing and playable.
Jasper talks eagerly about the power of programming. It is, he said, a way to gain dominance over machines.
With programming, “the machines stop having power over you,” he said. “I can create my own tools,” not unlike a blacksmith’s forge.
Jasper thinks schools can do more to expose students to the wonders of science and technology. Islander Middle School does not offer a computer-science class. Jasper was initially turned on to computer programming by his father, Jim, who was at Microsoft before joining Google as a software engineer.
Jim Hugunin helped man his son’s display table, which was set up a floor below the East Room.
Though Jasper did not get to greet Obama, he hoped the presidential approval would help bump up his passion’s coolness quotient with his peers.
“I’m sort of an outsider,” Jasper said. “There are a few (students) who are into programming, but not as much as I am.”
Lowering his right hand to hip level, Jasper said being a math or science whiz “used to be down here.”
“Now it’s up here,” he said, raising the left hand up to his chest. Then, placing his right hand above his head, he declared, “it really should be up here.”
Kyung Song: 202-662-7455 or email@example.com