Jonathan Cohn

Geek Day at the White House

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Today at the White House President Obama hosts another group of students who won a national championship. But it's not the hockey team from Boston College or the swimmers from Texas. It's the Rock'n'Roll Robots from Southern California.

And who are the Rock'n'Roll Robots? I'm glad you asked. They're a group of Girl Scouts who were part of a team that won a national robot-building competition for students. They're among more than 80 students the White House is honoring as part of its first annual Science Fair.

Last November, while unveiling the "Education to Innovate" initiative, President Obama said "If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you produce the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too." Now he and his advisers are making good on that promise.

The students in attendance represent a wide range of ages and disciplines, from biotechnology to software design. One team won a national Lego-building contest by engineering a device to stop drivers from texting while driving. Among the others being honored:

• a high school junior from Pennsylvania who took top honors at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair by inventing "a photosensitizer for photodynamic therapy, using light energy to activate a drug that kills cancer cells";

• three seventh graders, also from Southern California, who won their division of the Army's eCYBERMISSION competition by testing out safe sports helmet designs;

• a Cal Tech freshman from New Mexico who won the Intel Science Talent Search's top award by designing a software navigation system for spaceships traveling through the solar system;

• three high school students from Tennessee who won a $10,000 grant to develop the "Wildcat Water Purifier," a "micro-scale hydroelectric generator to purify surface water in remote areas."

I'm sure this is not the first group of accomplished student innovators to win White House recognition. But I don't recall past presidents giving the event the trappings of a sports championship visit. And while it's just a public relations event, it also sends a broader message about the value this administration and its allies place on intellectual achievement. 

That's always an important message to send. But it's particularly important at a time when, as Kevin Drum notes today, much of the political opposition not only encourages ignorance but seems positively to revel in it.

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