(TNS) — For 12-year-old Manasa Hari Bhimaraju, who until recently thought the coolest thing in the world would be a visit to the Wizarding World of Harry Potter in Orlando, Wednesday may have exceeded a visit to Hogwarts itself.
She and four others from the Bay Area were among more than 130 students invited to meet President Barack Obama and exhibit at the White House Science Fair.
"It definitely beats Harry Potter World," said Hari, a seventh-grader at Kennedy Middle School in Cupertino, after the fair.
It was the sixth science fair that Obama has hosted in the White House, occasions that the science-loving president clearly relishes. It also was the largest, featuring alumni as well as high achievers like Anton Cao, a junior at Evergreen Valley High in San Jose, who last spring was one of 12 students worldwide who answered every question on the AP Calculus AB test correctly.
In a folksy talk touting his administration's science initiatives and praising kids' projects, the First Geek suggested that the White House create a youth science advisory group — to explain what interests kids, what they think is working and how that could shape advances STEM — science, technology, engineering and mater — education.
The first student the president called out was Maya Varma, 17, from San Jose's Notre Dame High School, who was showing the ingenious tool she designed using free software and a smartphone, to enable people with asthma and other lung diseases to diagnose and monitor their own symptoms. Last month, Maya won a first place medal in the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search.
"It was so exciting. It was definitely unbelievable, and I'll remember it for the rest of my life," said Maya, reached by phone as she waited to catch a plane home Wednesday evening.
The president didn't walk through the Red Room where she was displaying her project, nor the China Room where Hari was, but they did get to shake his hand later.
As he went down the line of students, Obama asked their names and shook their hands. "He said, 'Congratulations, Hari," Hari said. "He has a presence, and he's really funny."
"All of you are showing the rest of us that it's never too early in life to make a difference," Obama told the student scientists.
On the 273rd birthday of Thomas Jefferson, a previous innovation-loving occupant of the White House, Obama gave a pitch for more girls, women and minorities into the sciences. "We're not going to succeed if we got half the team on the bench," he said, adding, to laughter, "especially when it's the smarter half of the team."
The fair was a mad rush of both adrenaline and last-minute preparation for the students, their teachers and parents. They didn't learn of their invitations until early last week.
In the case of the award-winning team from Mission Valley ROP and James Logan High in Union City, the invite involved building an entirely new version of their project — a solar-powered charging station for electric vehicles — because the White House hadn't realized that the original project, large enough to encompass an automobile, would not easily fit into the White House's East Room.
So the 60 students in teacher Eba Mohamad's automotive technology classes scrambled to procure new components and build a miniature version of their project, which had just won the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow national contest. Students Shaneel Narayan and Jashene Tongo demonstrated the charging station at the fair.
Participants got to tour the White House, including rooms not normally shown to the public. They talked with some of the president's top science team, and other luminaries.
"The person I was really looking forward to meeting was, well, obviously the president, and Bill Nye the Science Guy," Hari said. They also got to meet Adam Savage of the TV show MythBusters, and supermodel and science-promoter Karlie Kloss.
Hari also met the president's chief data scientist, DJ Patil — who it turns out had attended her middle school.
"And he even fist-bumped me when he was leaving and said 'Go Cougars!'" she said.
For Hari, the White House visit is another jewel in her crown of achievements. Last fall, she won the 2015 Broadcom MASTERS first place in technology for her "Elementor," a device that explains via lights and sound the elements on the atomic chart to blind and vision-impaired students.
On Friday she's exhibiting at an international science and engineering fair. Later, she'll be on to her next invention, a tool to help the visually impaired manage their medications and read their prescriptions.
©2016 the San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.), distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.