Engineering the future inside the third annual White House Science Fair

The White House West Wing, as ever, is very busy. It's nearly time for White House Press Secretary Jay Carney's daily press briefing, which today (April 22nd) will reveal that the Boston bombing suspect, Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, won't be tried as an "enemy combatant." Just upstairs, the atmosphere is thankfully less intense. In the East Room and surrounding chambers, over 100 students -- STEM-based competition winners from 40 different states -- are making their best efforts to remain chipper while explaining projects they've no doubt discussed dozens (if not hundreds) of times before.

Later this afternoon, President Barack Obama will address the dozens of attendees -- accomplished students and educators, as well as folks like Bill Nye ("The Science Guy"), Levar Burton (of Reading Rainbow fame) and Kathryn D. Sullivan (the first American woman to walk in space). He'll characterize the students' projects as "really cool," and he'll call out some lucky winners by name while speaking to the importance of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education in the United States.

Today is the culmination of years of work for many attendees, and it's an important day for the current administration as well. The White House Science Fair is an annual highlight of its "Educate to Innovate" initiative -- the Obama administration-led program that directs both public and private funds to a variety of programs, all aimed at bolstering STEM education in the US. It's a long-term, ambitious plan, and one that the White House is re-dedicating itself to in its proposed fiscal year 2014 budget: a planned reorganization coupled with $265 million, "redirected from within the Department [of Education] and from other agencies."

Beyond the occasional PR bump that events like the White House Science Fair bring, the Educate to Innovate initiative is largely one that won't reap dividends for some time. In 20 years, however, it may be the most important component of Obama's legacy.

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White House Science Fair 2013

An 18-year-old who's trying to cure cancer

Along with four others, 18-year-old Brittany Wenger took home top honors at Google's 2012 Science Fair -- one of the dozens of competitions held around the US that grants entry to the annual White House soirée. A high school senior now, Wenger got her start in the STEM field after taking a middle school elective on futuristic thinking -- the class inspired her to learn the programming language C#, which offered a foundation for her future endeavors.

"I built these soccer-playing programs because I'm an avid soccer player. But when I was in 10th grade, my cousin was actually diagnosed with breast cancer," Wenger tells us. "I got really inspired to get involved and make a difference and try to improve the diagnostic process."

As such, Wenger programmed an artificial neural network, which allows for pattern detection beyond what's capable in the human brain. "When you think about that, that really means they have infinite potential," she says, in reference to the program. In practice, the application has already helped with fine-needle aspiration, Wenger says, offering a much higher degree of accuracy in detecting malignant tumors. The research could have a major impact on breast cancer diagnoses, as fine-needle aspiration is both one of the least expensive methods for detecting breast cancer and one considered not totally conclusive (meaning few doctors use it). But with Wenger's artificial neural network, "they're actually 99 percent sensitive when it comes to malignancy," which makes the less expensive procedure a far more viable option for oncologists.

Other than breast cancer detection procedures, she's employing that "infinite potential" in a few ways -- first, she's extending her data set beyond area hospitals by pushing her program to the cloud, enabling hospitals from all over the world to weigh in with their own statistics. And second, Wenger's using a similar artificial neural network (a "hybrid" network) to diagnose leukemia.

Beyond fighting breast cancer and leukemia, Wenger's planning for a future at Duke University, where she's using her full scholarship to study computer science and biology (her research will continue as well, she says, with full support from Duke). Her long-term goal is to become a pediatric oncologist, though it's not hard to imagine Ms. Wenger ascending to even greater heights.

At the fair

Engineering the future inside the third annual White House Science Fair

Between the bustle of reporters, White House staffers and the portrait of Lincoln sternly overlooking the room, you'd think the middle and high school students presenting their projects around the perimeter might be intimidated. Instead, the sounds of snapping shutters and press handlers shouting time reminders to the media are overwhelmed by kids excitedly talking up their work. It probably doesn't hurt that they've spent the day being praised by the US President, who toured the exhibit an hour ahead of us.

He wasn't just there to offer praise, of course -- in his speech addressing attendees, Obama announced several new components of the ongoing STEM initiative. US2020 is a campaign aimed at companies with STEM employees to encourage 20 hours of mentoring (or teaching) per year by 2020, and there's a new AmeriCorps track that specifically focuses on STEM education. There are also plans in the works to help retention rates for undergraduate and graduate students in STEM-based programs who are thinking of dropping out or changing majors, though it looks like we won't hear more about how that will work (or how much it will cost) until later this year.

Educate to Innovate, 2013 and beyond

Engineering the future inside the third annual White House Science Fair

Wenger is just one of dozens of students who earned entry to the White House last week, and she's a great example of the Obama administration's STEM push. People like Wenger, and especially those 10 years younger than her and beyond, will embody the successes and failures of the Educate to Innovate initiative. While anecdotal examples like the White House Science Fair will help to highlight said successes, the long-term numbers will offer far more telling information on Educate to Innovate's realization. In so many words, we'll have to wait and see how many students end up inspired to move into STEM fields.

Those numbers may not be necessary, of course, should the initiative not accomplish its goal of incentivizing high-tech manufacturing and engineering to return to US soil. In a conversation with NBC's Brian Williams on Rock Center earlier this year, Apple CEO Tim Cook offered the same answer many consumer electronics CEOs do when asked why they don't manufacture their products in the US -- there simply aren't enough skilled workers to do the job living in the States. All the same, Apple is taking tentative steps toward US manufacturing with the announcement of one line of computers being created in the US. Additionally, a variety of other high-profile companies are signing on to push STEM education: Verizon, Ford, Microsoft and Time Warner Cable, to name just a few.

It's hard to see much negative in an initiative aimed at bolstering education in fields that yield not just our favorite gadgets, but also potential cures to our least favorite ailments. And ahead of demographic-changing results expected in years to come, the annual White House Science Fair is serving another very important purpose -- highlighting the achievements of young, ambitious American students. Obama's speech concluded with a reminder of just that: "We've got to make sure that we're also celebrating every single day in our schools, in our classrooms and in our country the outstanding contributions that scientists and engineers and mathematicians are providing to us every single day."