The scene was both impressive – and depressing.
At the White House Science Fair yesterday, President Barack Obama launched marshmallows from a cannon and got down on his knees to check out the innards of a soccer-playing robot.
He joked about how the prodigies were able to get their projects past the metal detector. And he singled out students from Detroit's Paul Robeson/Malcolm X Academy – 14-year-old Lucas Cain Beal, 14-year-old Jayla Mae Dogan and 13-year-old Ashley Cassie Thomas – for their engineering projects.
That was impressive.
What was depressing, though, was that there weren't enough Lucases or Jaylas or Ashleys there. And what continues to be depressing are the low numbers of young black people pursuing studies in science, technology, engineering and math.
Such studies, known as STEM subjects, hold the key to future career success – because that's where most of the jobs will be. But the National Center for Educational Statistics tells us that in 2009, blacks received only 7 percent of all STEM bachelor degrees, 4 percent of master's degrees and 2 percent of PhDs.
That's not a good prognosis for people who make up 12 percent of the U.S. population – and who disproportionately struggle with unemployment.
One reason given for the dearth of blacks who dare to do science and math is that early on, too many give into self-defeating attitudes about it being too hard, or that it's something that "we" don't do.
That's why Obama is probably one of the best role models to get black youths pumped about pursuing math and science – because if any black person is an example of overcoming difficult circumstances and beating back low expectations, it's him.
For those black youths who think that science and math is something "we" don't do, well, being president wasn't something that we did either until Obama won.
And to win, he had to beat back a political machine that was more seasoned and more connected. He had to persuade a mostly-white electorate – many of whom learn much of what they know about black people through media stereotypes and distortions – that they could trust him with his finger on the button.
Throughout his term, Obama has had to continue to do the difficult stuff. Stuff like helping to revive an auto industry that was almost left for dead. Stuff like having to battle members of his own party to get a health care law passed that would cover most Americans – many of whom would go bankrupt if they had to pay for catastrophic care.
And stuff like dealing with the ongoing, racially-tinged ridiculousness that comes from Tea Party people and Republicans who, unlike him, believe the best future for America is to take it back to a past when the rights of women, black people and Latinos took a back seat to their privilege.
Of course, I know that it isn't enough for black youths to simply want to pursue science and math. They must also have teachers who not only know the subject matter, but who can fire their imaginations so that they get pumped about becoming the next Bill Gates or the next Neil deGrasse Tyson.
And Obama is even working on that.
As part of his initiative to boost math and science achievement in the U.S., he wants to dedicate $80 million for the Education Department to match more than $20 million from corporations and foundations to bolster programs that prepare teachers in the STEM subjects.
I hope that initiative creates more Lucases, Jaylas and Ashleys. And I hope that the president can continue to inspire more kids like them to see a future in math and science and refuse . to let their vision be clouded by self-defeat.
Obama succeeded at something that was hard and continues to be hard. He even has people praying for him to fail, for him to die even.
But he keeps on keeping on. That's because the president isn't about the business of making their wishful thinking his reality.