WASHINGTON — In his dark blue business suit, President Barack Obama climbed onto a bicycle anchored to the ground outside the White House. He pedaled in his polished dress shoes, generating electricity to run a water sanitation system built by a group of Florida teenagers.
He peered into a flask of green liquid containing a new breed of algae that was created by a 17-year-old Colorado girl who wants to solve the country's energy problems.
And he shook hands with three small boys from Georgia who dreamed up a system to automatically cool down and hydrate sweating athletes.
"Keep in mind, they're in third, fourth grade, and they've already got this idea," Obama said. "If you're inventing stuff in the third grade, what are you going to do by the time you get to college?"
It was the third annual White House Science Fair, designed to call attention to the importance of STEM — science, technology, engineering and math — and to honor the innovations dreamed up by young minds.
About 100 students from 40 states, ranging in age from 8 to 19, were invited to the event Monday afternoon.
The fair comes at a time of great concern among educators and policymakers that U.S. students have fallen behind their peers around the world in terms of STEM disciplines. It's a worry the president shares.
"As a culture, we're great consumers of technology, but we're not always properly respecting the people who are in the labs and behind the scenes creating the stuff that we now take for granted," Obama told the gathering at the White House, which included his top science advisers, among them those who run the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and NASA. "And we've got to give the millions of Americans who work in science and technology not only the kind of respect they deserve but also new ways to engage young people."