Dr. John P. Holdren meets with members of Spelman College's Spelbots team. Photo Credit: Spelman College
Dr. John P. Holdren meets with members of Spelman College's Spelbots team. Photo Credit: Spelman College
Dr. John P. Holdren meets with members of Spelman College’s Spelbots team.
Photo Credit: Spelman College

President Obama’s Science and Technology Advisor, Dr. John P. Holdren, gets excited anytime he interacts with youth from underrepresented populations that are passionate about pursuing opportunities in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).

The welcoming, mild-mannered Director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy recently visited Spelman College to tour the campus’ Innovation Lab and meet with selected faculty.

He also connected with a few engineering students about some of the research, activities and projects relating to robotics and coding on which the students are currently working. Like President Obama, Dr. Holdren firmly believes that practical, hands-on experience is what motivates young people to consider how fun STEM education can be.

“What is being demonstrated here is that kids learn so much faster and retain so much more when they’re actually able to do things with science,” says Dr. Holdren, who taught at UC Berkeley for 23 years and Harvard for an additional 13 years. “Having access is important for engagement.”

Dr. Holdren pointed out that the diversity among his students at both academic institutions was second nature to him.

“What I’ve found in those 36 years of teaching was the talent pool in this country is very diverse,” he says. “There are lots of folks that have the talent to succeed in science, math, and engineering in the African American community, Hispanic community and Asian community among others.”

In years prior to Dr. Holdren’s arrival at Spelman, the enthusiastic MacArthur Fellow had only made trips to Atlanta to visit the Center for Disease Control (CDC). He stood in admiration, taking a personal panoramic view of a re-purposed computer lab equipped with a maker’s lab, laser cutter and 3D printer.

What’s clear from the moment Dr. Holdren entered the Innovation Lab and went around the room to introduce himself is that he loves science. “Science is about understanding ourselves and the world around us,” urges Dr. Holdren.

“The universe is really the basis of much of the progress that we’ve been able to make as a society. If you look at what’s driving the economic growth, what has improved public health and biomedicine and what keeps us secure, it’s largely been investments in discoveries about science, engineering and mathematics.”

Dr. Holdren, one of America’s premier scientists and academics, told a few funny stories about causing a few explosions with his first chemistry set. The adviser to President Clinton also paraphrased a few of his chats with President Obama about how to make STEM education and opportunities accessible to minorities.

The recipient of numerous accolades such as the John Heinz Prize and the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, Dr. Holdren really perked up when he fidgeted with a lens attached to a square of plywood that enables students to take pictures of what’s under a microscope with their smartphones.

“In sports, we don’t lecture kids for 12 years about football before we let them pick up a football,” says Dr. Holdren picking up a few other lab-produced prototypes. “What we’ve learned in science and technology as well is if you let kids get their hands on equipment and do interesting things, they’re gonna become the scientists, discoverers, inventors and entrepreneurs of the future.”

Since the Stanford and MIT alumnus became the leader of the initiative in 2009, Dr. Holdren, along with President Obama, has developed a range of programs such as science fairs, symposiums, conferences and workshops to attract primarily students of color.

Those activities, Dr. Holdren says, empowers diverse pools of students, especially girls and young women. “One of the unfortunate impressions that people sometimes get from watching TV programs is that just about everybody doing science, math or engineering is a white male,” says Dr. Holdren.

“There are lots of successful examples from diverse communities, so we need to get those together with young people so that they see that these opportunities are open to them.”

Once Dr. Holdren made his way upstairs from the Innovation Lab, the esteemed educator met and chatted with Spelman’s robotics team, SpelBots, about their recent travels to Brazil and a mobile app they developed to control a robotic car.

Standing adjacent to the blue polo-clad ladies with his hands on his chin, Dr. Holdren stared in awe at the history making female ensemble program as a robot grooved to Pharrell Williams’ “Happy.” The ladies filled in the Co-Chair of the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology on their mentorship program that attracts young girls.

SpelBots discuss with the young girls the joy of science and even host campus tours for the girls. The SpelBots, Dr. Holdren believes, lead by example. They are role models who look like the young women and ethnic minorities he hopes will see the possibilities in STEM.

Dr. Holdren is also an advocate for youth becoming oriented with STEM as early as possible in their learning. “Kids’ impressions about what’s possible and exciting for them gets developed early,” suggests Dr. Holdren immediately following the SpelBots’ presentation.

“The more we learn about these things, the earlier it seems to be that kids get a better understanding on what they can do and want to do get found.” Dr. Holdren also had Georgia Tech on his itinerary after he departed from Spelman.

Still overjoyed, he uttered that he couldn’t wait to get back to President Obama to share with him the level of productivity occurring on Spelman’s campus. He’s proud that he stopped by because the school’s culture aligns with the President’s Educate to Innovate campaign, which has become a primary focal point of his two terms in the White House.

“Spelman is tapping more and more into the full talent base in our society to help educate and train the future,” proclaims Dr. Holdren. “The kind of work that’s going on here is totally important. If you give folks equal opportunity to access tools and the excitement of science, then they will succeed. They will do it.”

This post was written by Christopher A. Daniel, pop cultural critic and music editor for The Burton Wire. He is also a contributing writer for Urban Lux Magazine and Blues & Soul Magazine. Follow Christopher @Journalistorian on Twitter.

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