Remember the marshmallow cannon? Time for the White House science fair

Olivier Knox, Yahoo News

It’s going to be tough to top the “extreme marshmallow cannon” that blasted one of the gooey treats across the East Room – but attendees at the 2014 White House Science Fair next Tuesday will surely try. And this year, President Obama will put the spotlight May 27 on girls and women stars in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions.

Obama has described the annual showcase as one of his favorite events – and has taken a hands-on approach to learning about the projects. In 2012, the president insisted on helping to pump up the marshmallow cannon and firing it across the East Room. (He later invited the contraption’s inventor, Joey Hudy, to be a guest at the 2014 State of the Union). In 2013, Obama hopped on a stationary bike to test out a pedal-powered water filtration system.

Popular figures in science like Bill Nye, The Science Guy, and LeVar Burton ("Star Trek"’s Geordi La Forge) have attended and helped give the event a little added luster.

This year, while Democrats focus on women voters, the science fair will focus on girls, who are underrepresented in scientific fields.

A 2011 Commerce Department report – “Women in STEM: A Gender Gap to Innovation” – found that just 24% of scientists and engineers are women. A 2012 White House report said that the gap is partly because fewer women study STEM subjects in college, and many of those who do end up working in non-STEM fields.

Across the administration, programs meant to spur STEM education overall are also designed to attract and retain more girls and women.

Obama’s $4.35 billion “Race to the Top” program, created in the 2009 economic stimulus package, provides education grants to states, with added incentives to help underrepresented groups, including girls and women.

The independent fact-checking site Politifact has looked into the impact of the program and assessed that Obama kept his campaign promise of attracting more students to science and math.

But as these state-by-state results make clear, there is still considerable work to be done.

At a time when spending cuts have devastated investments in government-backed research and science education, the president is sure to make the point that America can ill-afford to let other countries take the lead in innovation.

Obama launched the tradition in 2009, playing off the presidential practice of hosting championship sports teams.

“If you win the NCAA championship, you come to the White House. Well, if you're a young person and you've produced the best experiment or design, the best hardware or software, you ought to be recognized for that achievement, too,” he said.