West Baltimore boy, 9, wows Obama at White House science fair

Jacob Leggette, 9, of Baltimore, watches President Obama blow a bubble at Jacob's science exhibit at the White House Science Fair on Wednesday.
Jacob Leggette, 9, of Baltimore, watches President Obama blow a bubble at Jacob's science exhibit at the White House Science Fair on Wednesday. (Ricky Carioti / The Washington Post)

Jacob Leggette was among more than 100 students who presented inventions and projects at President Barack Obama's sixth and final White House Science Fair, but the 9-year-old Sandtown resident was the only one whose ideas Obama said "could help us shape advances in STEM education."

As he showed the president 3D-printed toys he designed and made himself, Leggette suggested he and other kids like him get a say in how the country teaches its children science, technology, engineering and math.


Obama liked the idea so much, he passed it along to his science adviser John Holdren in his official remarks. The president proposed forming "a kids' advisory group that starts explaining to us what's interesting to them and what's working, and could help us shape advances in STEM education."

"Anyway, that was Jacob's idea," Obama added. "So way to go, Jacob. We're going to follow up on that."


Leggette, whose much publicized interaction with the president turned him into an overnight media darling, said the experience was "almost the best day of my life," before correcting himself. "It was the best day of my life."

His favorite project he showed the president was a set of sticky toys he made by designing and 3D-printing molds. Obama also blew bubbles using a wand Leggette made.

"He totally rocked it," said Caitlyn Dixon, coordinator of the "mini makers" program at the Digital Harbor Foundation, where Leggette attends after-school programs. "We couldn't be more proud."

The home-schooled third-grader was first introduced to 3D printing at a foundation summer camp last year, and he has continued learning since. He even wrote a letter to a 3D printer manufacturer that convinced it to donate a printer to him in exchange for feedback on how easy the product was for kids to use.

"You can make almost anything," Jacob said. "I look online and make anything I needed or wanted."

He keeps a weekly list, in fact, of things he wants to print, said his mother, Stephanie Leggette.

It included a sphere and a cube while he was learning about geometry, but also usually contains some items just for fun, like a figurine of the video game character Mario or a mask like the superhero Iron Man's. He printed a puppy for his 5-year-old sister and a Disney castle for his mom just because he thought they would like them.

He has no shortage of ideas.

"We try to slow him down," Stephanie Leggette said.

After all, there's only so much space in the family's rowhouse, which is just around the corner from the Western District police station that was the center of so many protests about the death of Freddie Gray last spring.

Jacob's brain has always worked differently than other kids' do, his mom said. He learned to read when he was 3 and taught himself how to multiply, noticing the pattern of counting by fives without anyone asking him, she said. He can recite the names of all 44 presidents in succession, and he knows all 50 states (and their capitals) in the order they were admitted to the union.

Stephanie Leggette began home schooling him a few years ago when Baltimore City Public Schools declined to accept him early (his birthday is in November). She and Jacob's father, Donté Leggette, are still trying to figure out where to send him one day.


"I had to learn a lot to teach him," she said. "If it was up to him, he'd be going to college at 12."

His interests aren't limited to 3D printing. Thursday afternoon at Digital Harbor's after-school program, he was learning how to build websites using HTML code. He has a black belt in tae kwon do, is learning piano from his grandfather and loves playing video games with his dad.

When he grows up, he's got some specific and lofty ambitions.

"I want to be a programmer who programs robots and makes artificial organs," Jacob said. His inspiration? "I see elderly people come down the street, and I want to help them."

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