Obama relishes role as ‘nerd in chief’

“I’m a nerd, and I don’t make any apologies for it,” President Obama said, stepping out of an International Space Station docking simulator at the White House Frontiers Conference in Pittsburgh earlier this fall.

Whether spending time with top students at the White House Science Fair or learning about multiparameter flow cytometry with biomedical scientists, Obama makes it cool to be a nerd.

White House Science Fair

Student and President Obama behind assembly of pipes and wood, looking upward (© AP Images)
A marshmallow launcher was a hit at the 2012 White House Science Fair. (© AP Images)

Obama has filled the White House with whiz kids for the White House Science Fair every year since 2010. Students have shown off projects on 3-D printing, electricity generation and vaccine transport. It’s one of Obama’s favorite events, although he has teased that he’s seen “an alarming number of robots.”

South by South Lawn

President Obama sitting with Lego statue on White House lawn (White House/Pete Souza)
Statues made of Legos welcome visitors to the first South by South Lawn festival. (White House/Pete Souza)

In 2016, Obama started South by South Lawn, an innovation, film and music festival akin to a grown-up White House Science Fair, inspired by the annual South by Southwest (SXSW) festival in Texas. Participants brought ideas for making food more nutritious, improving worker rights and combating climate change. Oh, and they brought Legos — thousands of Legos as life-size sculptures that wowed the crowd.

Journey to Mars

President Obama with microphone and youth next to telescope and NASA spacesuit (© AP Images)
NASA’s next big goal is to go beyond Earth and take humans to Mars. (© AP Images)

Obama has pledged the U.S. will get humans on Mars by the 2030s. By doing so, “we won’t just benefit from related advances in energy, medicine, agriculture and artificial intelligence, we’ll benefit from a better understanding of our environment and ourselves,” he said.

First line of code

President Obama and student sitting at table with laptops (© AP Images)
President Obama shares a fist bump with a student as he writes his first line of code. (© AP Images)

Obama in 2014 became the first U.S. president to write a line of code. During a worldwide “Hour of Code,” the president used the popular programming language called JavaScript to write:

moveForward(100);

By writing that code, the president was able to move Elsa, a character from the Disney movie Frozen, forward 100 pixels, the tiny points that make up images on a computer screen.

Looking ahead

Sometimes, we all need big ideas, sometimes inspired by works like Frozen or Star Trek, the president wrote in the November issue of Wired magazine.

The combination of science, tech and people with big ideas has Obama more optimistic than ever about the future.

“I get the sense that today’s young people are proud to be smart and curious, to design new things, and tackle big problems in unexpected ways,” he said.

“I think America’s a nerdier country than it was when I was a kid — and that’s a good thing!”