President Barack Obama grabs the steering wheel as Tristan Evarts, of Londonderry, N.H., explains how their invention can detect distracted driving as he tours science projects on display in the State Dining Room of the White House. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy.)

President Barack Obama grabs the steering wheel as Tristan Evarts, of Londonderry, N.H., explains how their invention can detect distracted driving. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

President Barack Obama announced several new initiatives geared toward improving U.S. competitiveness in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) education during the first White House Science Fair on Oct. 19, including new funding commitments and public service campaigns.

The private sector has committed $700 million to help improve the nation’s STEM education, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) launched a public-private partnership to inspire young people to pursue STEM-related fields.

More than 100 top executives from the nation’s leading corporations recently launched a campaign called “Change the Equation,” designed to improve America’s math and science rankings.

“It’s unacceptable to me, and I know it’s unacceptable to you, for us to be ranked on average as 21st [in science] or 25th [in math]—not with so much at stake,” Obama said. “Now obviously the young people who are here all boosted our averages considerably.”

Those young people, being honored for their student achievement in the STEM disciplines, presented astoundingly impressive projects, from a sophomore girl who developed a new technique for battling cancer with light activation to a high school team from Tennessee that developed a self-contained water purification system.

“Now if that doesn’t inspire you, if that doesn’t make you feel good about America and the possibilities of our young people when they apply themselves to science and math, I don’t know what will,” Obama said.

Obama also discussed the Race to the Top initiative, which encourages states to compete to produce the most innovative STEM education programs designed to raise student achievement.

“There are tens of millions of talented young people out there who haven’t been similarly inspired, and we’ve got to figure out how we make sure that everybody who’s got that same talent and inclination, how do we give them the tools that they need so that they can succeed, so that they’re entering international science competitions, so that they’re up to snuff when it comes to math,” Obama said.

Obama said he held the science fair to bring attention to the best of the student innovators.

“Often we don’t give these victories the attention that they deserve,” Obama said. “When you win first place at a science fair, nobody is rushing the field or dumping Gatorade over your head. But it many ways our future depends on what happens in those contests.”

He also pointed out that the most common course of study for S&P 500 CEOs is engineering.

“Anybody with a good idea can prosper. Anybody with talent can succeed. … And that’s why it’s so important that we promote [STEM] education, on behalf of not just this generation but all the generations to follow,” Obama said.

He addressed the importance of holding on to talented teachers who can motivate students to pursue STEM education.

“When budget cuts across America threatened the jobs of countless teachers, we fought some tough competition to save the jobs of hundreds of thousands of educators and school workers, because nothing is more important than the investment we’re making in education,” Obama said.

Obama spoke about new public-private partnerships that offer additional training to more than 100,000 current teachers, as well as initiatives that will help prepare more than 10,000 new teachers in the next five years.

Other science projects included a device to discourage texting while driving and a test of whether foam really is the best material to pad the inside of a safety helmet.

Obama revealed that he had recently taped a special guest appearance on the Discovery Channel program “Mythbusters.”

“I didn’t get to blow anything up,” he said. “I was a little frustrated with that.”

Obama toured students’ exhibits at the fair, which culminates this weekend in the U.S. Science and Engineering Festival, held on the National Mall on Oct. 23 and Oct. 24. More than 1 million people are expected to participate on the National Mall and in more than 50 satellite locations.