EDUCATION: Silver Spring teen enjoys honors at Obama’s White House Science Fair


When Jacen Sherman set out to create a video game in which players must save the world from catastrophe, he didn’t think it would land him in a room with President Obama — a man who has encountered a few global catastrophes of his own.

Sherman, a 15-year-old sophomore at Springbrook High School in Silver Spring, attended The White House Science Fair Tuesday held by President Obama in the East Room. The ceremony honored science, technology, engineering and math, or STEM, competition winners nationwide as part of Obama’s goal to educate more people in those subjects. Obama created the first White House Science Fair in late 2010 after launching his “Educate to Innovate” campaign aimed at improving education in math and science, an effort that would foster inventions and fill more jobs in the economy.

“I was five feet away from one of the most important people in the world,” Sherman said.

Despite winning Microsoft’s Kodu Cup — a competition for young video game designers — after creating a video game called Vortex for computers and the Xbox, Sherman said the invite still surprised him.

“I was pretty amazed,” he said. “It’s a once-in-a-lifetime experience.”

The game revolves around a world embroiled in a nuclear disaster. While most of humanity has figured out how to escape into a virtual world, one person failed to do so and launches a virus out of rage, which the player must kill.

Sherman said the ceremony, in which Obama addressed a room of more than 100 science and technology competition winners from across the country, validated his long-time effort to create a full-fledged video game on his own.

“It kind of makes me feel good to know that what I’ve been working so hard to do has been recognized,” Sherman said.

And to be recognized by Obama himself was even better, he added.

The young video game enthusiast dreams of attending the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, adding that he is still considering degrees in computer programming, computer engineering or Web design.

“I haven’t decided yet, so I’m trying to keep my paths open,” Sherman said.

Obama opened the festivities saying, “This is fun. It’s not every day that you have robots running all over your house….I also shot a marshmallow through an air gun, which was very exciting.”

However, Obama still stressed the importance of encouraging young innovators, telling the award-winners that their efforts would ensure “America will win the race to the future.”

“If we are recognizing athletic achievements, we also need to be recognizing science achievements,” Obama said. “It’s young people like you that make me so confident that America’s best days are still to come.”

Obama also announced several new initiatives aimed at fostering technological inventions in the future: an $80 million investment in the presidential budget to better prepare STEM teachers, accompanied by a $22 million match from the private sector for the same purpose.

These efforts are in support of a goal of graduating 1 million more Americans in STEM programs over the next 10 years, he added.

“We’re a nation of tinkerers and dreamers and believers in a better tomorrow,” Obama said. “I can’t think of a better way to spend a morning than with the young people who are here doing their part and creating some unbelievable stuff in the process….I’m proud of you.”

Featured photo: President Obama speaks to award winners at the 2012 White House Science Fair in the East Room, which emphasizes the administration’s focus on science, technology, engineering and math education. Photo by Nick Foley

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