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How apt: K-M students show app at White House

Vice President Joe Biden joins a selfie with Andrea Richard and Lydia Mindermann in his office at the White House Tuesday. The Kasson-Mantorville eighth graders presented their Mayo Free Time app at the White House Science Fair Wednesday.

WASHINGTON -- Monday was just another school day for Kasson-Mantorville eighth-graders Andrea Richard and Lydia Mindermann.

By Tuesday afternoon, they were at the White House and had taken a selfie with Vice President Joe Biden.

On Wednesday, they shook hands with President Obama and had national media swirling around them at the White House Science Fair.

Today, they're back in class in Kasson.

It's been a whirlwind few days for Andrea, 14, and Lydia, 13, who learned two weeks ago that they had been chosen to participate in the White House fair, which Obama launched six years ago to promote interest in STEM education and celebrate top students. On Wednesday, the president and guests toured the projects, which were set up all over the mansion's public areas -- in the entrance hall by the grand piano, in the lower level rooms amid portraits of First Ladies, and in the tulip-filled garden overlooking the Ellipsis.


About 130 students presented their projects, which ranged from a "green" process to make glue from dissolved Styrofoam to a project about heritage chickens and egg production that involved a live and very well-behaved hen.

And there were lots of robots -- "an alarming number of robots," Obama joked later during comments to the students and guests in the East Room. Among the guests attracting the most attention was Bill Nye , the "Science Guy."

The project that took Andrea and Lydia to the White House also took them last year to an international competition in San Francisco. They developed a smartphone app called Mayo Free Time, which was designed to assist Mayo patients and visitors find their way around the clinic and the city, for the Technovation entrepreneurship challenge. The app won awards in San Francisco last year.

Mayo Clinic has expressed interest in the app and helped pay for the team's trip to Washington, as did the Rochester Area Math Science Partnership and the K-M school district.

The Technovation project and the White House event was all extracurricular, meaning a lot of hours, effort and expense. The payoff, for now, was a few days at the White House with top students from around the country. The Kasson girls were the only participants from Minnesota.

The high point for Andrea was meeting the vice president Tuesday. She and Lydia were putting their project together in the musty China Room at the White House when they were called up to the vice president's office.

"He talked to us about cancer research," a subject close to Biden's heart after the death of his son Beau last year, Andrea said. Just a few other students whose projects were related to cancer and health issues were invited to his office. Biden gave each of them vice presidential bracelets, and Andrea got a peck on the cheek.

On Wednesday, the president spent about an hour hearing student presentations and meeting with all the young people, then spoke about how the event has been one of his favorites during his years in office. "The only problem with the science fair is that it makes me feel inadequate," he said.


Obama said he asked the students how they became interested in science, and "for most of them, it was a teacher, a mentor, that got them hooked." He said it's "all up to us to work with our young talents," encouraging their curiosity and ingenuity.

"It's never too early in life to make a difference" to a young person, he said. Speaking to the students, he said, "We could not be prouder of you. We're counting on you to build a brighter future, and we will be with you every step of the way."

Sharie Furst, a STEM teacher at K-M Middle School who coached the girls through the Technovation and White House events, said Wednesday she was "incredibly proud" of them.

"I've seen such growth in the girls over the past year," she said. "They were nervous about presenting at the state competition, and now I see them here presenting at the White House with such confidence."

Also members of the team that developed the app for Technovation were former K-M student Rylee Melius and mentor Kris Kendal, an IBM software engineer.

At the event, which was livestreamed on the White House website , Obama announced several new initiatives to promote science education, which has been a consistent theme of his administration. Among the new programs is a $200 million commitment from tech giant Oracle to make computer science education more available nationwide.

"I liked the president's speech," Lydia said, especially his words about "inspiring us to continue on with science projects."

Late in the afternoon, the girls packed up their display with help from Furst and their mothers, Tammi Richard and Sheri Seipel-Mindermann, then had a fast dinner and caught the red-eye home to Minnesota so they could be in class today.


Will there be a White House Science Fair next year? That depends. But Lydia and Andrea are now among hundreds of students who have shown off their apps, robots and chicken projects to the president, and maybe, as Obama said Wednesday, "somebody from your generation -- maybe somebody in this room -- will be the first to set foot on Mars."

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