Countless famous footsteps have crossed the White House's entrance hall, but on Tuesday, some of the country's top science and technology dignitaries had to dodge a hovercraft made of foam and a paper bowl whizzing across the shiny pink-and-white marble.
It was built by a group of five students at Patterson High School, selected among 30 research ventures for the fourth annual White House science fair. They won a place at the event by merit of a competition they won last fall, putting them in a room with President Barack Obama and with leaders of NASA, the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health, who visited with the students and asked questions.
Their teacher hopes it will bring attention to a program at Patterson that dispatches students on real-world engineering projects and connects them with mentors at Northrop Grumman, Lockheed Martin and other engineering firms.
While the students didn't get a chance to meet personally with the president, and they weren't sure exactly who all the dignitaries were at their showcase, the swift hovercrafts darting across the ornate hallway certainly got attention.
"Some lady jumped like it was a rat," joked Onyekachi Ekeagwu, a Patterson alumnus who is now studying industrial engineering at Morgan State University.
The students began the project two years ago as part of Project Lead the Way, a program at Patterson and across the country that trains students in science, engineering, technology and math, or STEM, fields. After spending their first two years of high school surveying the fields, students delve into solving engineering problems and creating products.
The group including Ekeagwu and classmates Jevaughn Taylor, Iragena Serge Bangamwabo, Abhishek Yonghang-Subba and De'onte Green built a series of toy hovercrafts they plan to keep refining and perhaps eventually market. They chose the toys as the focus of their final projects, tackling the engineering challenges of propelling the crafts upward and forward, using recycled materials to build them.
They also stayed after school to go beyond the engineering to craft a business plan, something that qualified them to enter — and win — the Network for Teaching Entrepreneurship's Baltimore STEM business plan competition last fall.
"We do just as well as some of the prominent or elite schools," said Sharon Ball, who teaches the Project Lead the Way courses along with colleague Nick Yates at Patterson. "We're just waiting for that one big hit so we can be like [Baltimore Polytechnic Institute] and say we got a patent. But we get to go to the White House."
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Even though four of the five students have moved on from Patterson — to Morgan, the University of Maryland, Eastern Shore, community colleges, and, for Green, soon the military — they keep coming back to the school to further develop the hovercrafts. They are still working out the kinks in a solar-powered version, which doesn't yet have as much oomph as battery-powered models, and trying to develop a remote-controlled version that can have variable speeds.
"We see this as a hobby," Ekeagwu said. "It's something we enjoy doing."
The students were in accomplished company. Other invitees included a New York girl who survived liver cancer to discover a common genetic mutation among those with the same illness, and a Florida boy who designed synthetic sandbags that are lighter and more effective at preventing flooding. Past local participants in the science fair have included Jack Andraka, the North County High School student who gained fame for a prostate cancer detection test he developed, and Tristan Carmean, a Chesapeake Science Point Charter School student.
And in remarks to the attendees, Obama emphasized they were walking the same halls that welcomed the Super Bowl champion Seattle Seahawks on Wednesday — but that their accomplishments were more lasting.
"I believe what's being done by these young people I've had a chance to meet is even more important," Obama said. "They're what's going to transform our society."