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President Obama Hangs Out with Citizens, Discusses STEM

The fireside hangout sparked conversations about science, technology, engineering and math, as well as software patents.

by , / February 15, 2013
President Barack Obama holds his second ever Google Hangout. Photo courtesy of the White House.

President Barack Obama interacted with Americans in a Google hangout inspired by the fireside chats of former President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Unlike Roosevelt's one-way radio addresses, this online venue gave citizens the chance to ask the president questions about a range of topics including science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
One participant asked Obama if his two daughters, Malia and Sasha Obama, have expressed any interest in pursuing science or engineering fields. 

Obama said his daughters are still a bit young to have made any official decisions on their future  career paths, but they are doing well in math and science. He and first lady Michelle Obama don’t want their daughters “to be intimidated” by the fields of math and science, and think that more women should enter STEM fields. That also means more education in these subjects must be incorporated into U.S. schools.

In his State of the Union address on Tuesday, Feb. 12, Obama emphasized the importance of making sure students learn technical skills in high school that will prepare students for jobs. He cited Brooklyn's P-Tech school, where students graduate with a high school diploma and an associate degree in computers or engineering.

One of the citizens in the hangout mentioned this and asked if Obama would consider making computer programming a required language along with a foreign language.

"I think it makes sense; I really do," Obama said. "Part of what I'm trying to do here is to make sure that we're working with high schools and school districts all across the country to make the high school experience relevant for young people, not all of whom are going to get a four-year college degree or an advanced degree."

Because not everyone will go on to a four-year degree, high schools need to prepare students to start a job once they graduate. For example, programs and apprenticeships in high school for graphic design would not only give students that preparation, but also would get them more excited about learning. Facebook Founder Mark Zuckerberg, for instance, got his start in programming because he was interested in games and taught himself how to program.

"I want to make sure that they know how to actually produce things with computers instead of just consuming things," Obama said.

As technology continues to change rapidly, one participant said small businesses were worried that if they become successful, they would be targeted by software patent trolls-- which collect patents on technology, but do not manufacture or use the patented invention. These "trolls" essentially hijack someone else's idea and extort money from them.

For the past two years, Obama has been working on patent reform. In 2011, he signed a patent reform bill – the first time since 1952 – in an effort to quicken the patent process for entrepreneurs and inventors.

"Our efforts at patent reform only went about halfway to where we need to go," Obama said, "and what we need to do is pull together additional stakeholders and see if we can build some additional consensus on some smarter patent laws."

During this consensus-building conversation, stakeholders need to make sure they balance protection of people's intellectual property with making sure that the patents aren't so long that innovation is stifled. The technology is changing fast, but privacy and civil liberties need to be protected across the high-tech industry.

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Sarah Rich

In 2008, Sarah Rich graduated from California State University, Chico, where she majored in news-editorial journalism and minored in sociology. She wrote for for Government Technology magazine from 2010 through 2013.

Tanya Roscorla Former Managing Editor, CDE

Tanya Roscorla covered ed tech from 2009-2017.

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