The president toured the exhibitions from student winners from more than 40 science, technology, engineering and math competitions that ranged from a boy who invented a lightweight, expanding "sandless" bag to a girl who identified a genetic mutation that helped cure her own cancer.
Eric Chen, an 18-year-old San Diego student who used computer models to identify a potentially game-changing anti-flu medicine, described presenting to Obama as "surreal" but otherwise like any other science fair.
In an East Room speech before a jovial crowd, which included Bill Nye (The Science Guy), NASA Administrator Charlie Bolden, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Mythbusters co-host Kari Bryon, Obama said the science fair is "one of his favorite events all year" because it shined the spotlight on an issue that doesn't get as much attention as it should.
"As a society, we have to celebrate outstanding work by young people in science at least as much as we do Super Bowl winners because super-star biologists and engineers and rocket scientists and robot builders, they don't always get the attention that they deserve, but they're what's going to transform our society," he said. "They're the folks who are going to come up with cures for diseases, and new sources of energy and help us build healthier and more successful societies."
Obama announced a new $35 million grant competition through the Department of Education to identify some of the most promising graduates from STEM-field degrees and train them to be teachers, as well as an expiation of AmeriCorps to open up STEM programs to 18,000 low-income students this summer.
The attention on guiding young people toward STEM fields seems to be paying off, with millions of dollars in private investment spent and hundreds of thousands of students engaging in STEM learning, even when they're not in school.
"It gives them the sense they can influence something," said NASA engineer Bobak Ferdowsi, whose star-spangled mohawk became a sensation on the live feed as the Curiosity rover touched down on the surface of Mars in 2012. "When you enable kids, it gives them power and ownership over their own futures."
The president seemed in awe of the young inventors present, including a group of 6-and 8-year-old Girl Scouts who used Legos to deign a mechanized "flood-proof" bridge and coding the computer program that will respond to flood conditions to raise the bridge to keep it from washing out.
At their age, Obama said, "I was just learning to put up a tent, they're designing bridge stuff."
And of 12-year-old Peyton Robertson, the creator who has a patent pending for those sandless bags filled with a lightweight polymer that expands when wet, Obama offered practical advice to the crowd:
"If you can buy stock in Peyton," he said with a laugh, "you should do so now."