White Houses lauds North Carolina’s efforts to boost science education

Renee Schoof

Research Triangle Park is one of seven winners in a national competition to encourage people with careers in science, technology, engineering and math to mentor students, the White House announced on Tuesday at its annual science fair.

Called US2020, the program is aimed at providing hands-on projects and academic coaching to students, with a focus on girls and minorities, at schools in Wake, Durham and Orange counties where a quarter or more of the population comes from low-income families.

The Triangle was one of 53 communities that competed for the grant. The seven winners will share $1 million, which will include grants and consulting and training by Discovery Communications.

The region has one of the nation’s highest concentrations of PhD’s, but also high needs among students, according to the Research Triangle Foundation, the not-for-profit organization that operates the park and applied for the grant. A measure of data showing how high school students perform in physics and calculus in 2011 found North Carolina ranked 36th, with a below-average score of 2.34 on a scale of 1 to 5.

The announcement of the grants for mentoring coincided with the White House Science Fair, which has been held every year since 2010. President Barack Obama spent part of the morning chatting with student scientists from 30 states. None were from North Carolina this year.

“I love this event,” Obama said. “This is one of my favorite things all year long.”

He joked that the students were far more advanced than he was at their age, telling them how he killed the plants for one of his science fair projects and “another time a bunch of mice escaped in my grandmother’s apartment.”

Obama said the students he met were “just amazing” and noted that this year’s theme was to encourage more girls to go into science and engineering.

“These are the fields of the future,” he said. “This is where the good jobs are going to be.”

Bob Geolas, president and CEO of the Research Triangle Foundation, met with Obama in the White House Map Room along with about half a dozen others involved in US2020.

“He wanted us to think of ourselves as working as a team, setting an example for how this mentoring can be done,” Geolas said.

The mentoring project is important because many students who are interested in science and math don’t know how to connect with mentors, nor is it easy for would-be mentors to find the right students, Geolas said.

“We’re going to serve as the matchmaker,” he said.

The project also will try to inspire other students who are intimidated by science and math or are worried about what they see as the destructive power of technology, Geolas said: “We need to remove that barrier to science and technology and let them see that the future is bright.”

US2020 involves educational institutions, non-profits and companies in the region, including BASF Corp.; LORD Corp.; Cisco Systems, Inc.; Fidelity Investments; Biogen Idec, Inc.; Lenovo; Toshiba; United Therapeutics Corp.; and Quintiles. Geoloas said the Research Triangle Foundation hoped others also would provide resources and volunteers.

The six other winning cities were Wichita, Kan.; Allentown, Pa.; Chicago; Indianapolis; Philadelphia; and San Francisco.

The White House also announced several other projects to promote science, technology, engineering and math, including a $35 million grant competition to train college students in these fields to be teachers. It also unveiled an expansion of STEM AmeriCorps to help students at low-performing schools get involved in math and science-related fields in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, South Carolina and West Virginia.

A third development is a joint venture that will be developed between NASA and Khan Academy, a nonprofit education website, to offer free online lessons about the math and science behind a mission to Mars.

By Renee Schoof
McClatchy Washington Bureau