Environment & Science

High school science whiz kids from Southern California visit White House

Hayley Hoverter, inventor of soluble sugar packets
Hayley Hoverter, inventor of soluble sugar packets
Kitty Felde/KPCC
Hayley Hoverter, inventor of soluble sugar packets
Braeden Benedict with his football helmet sensor
Kitty Felde/KPCC

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President Barack Obama shot marshmallows across the White House dining room today — all in the name of science, of course. The marshmallow launcher was part of an exhibit of prize-winning science projects from high school kids across the country.

A pair of Southern California teenagers were there.

President Obama welcomed the teenagers to the White House science fair. This is the second year the First Family has turned the downstairs of the White House into a display hall for the latest innovations in science.

The exhibit gave the president a chance to announce a $22 million project by corporations and non-profits to train 100,000 new math and science teachers. But it also let him celebrate a group of high school science students with remarkably clever ideas.

He called on Hayley Hoverter who invented a new type of sugar packet that dissolves in hot water. "It’s flavorless, it’s colorless and potentially could save up to two million pounds of trash each year. And that’s just at Starbuck’s!"

Hoverter, 16, from the Academy of Finance at L.A.'s Downtown Magnet High School says her class assignment was to write a business plan for a cause she cared about. She says her mom used to work in a cafe when she was younger, "so I used to see firsthand all the trash that was being consumed and it really bothered me."

She came up with the idea of the world’s first soluble sugar packet. "It’s sugar encased in starch paper so you can just drop the entire packet in, other than throwing it out, ripping it open." Hoverter says she got the idea partially from rice paper candy that she used to eat "when I was little, and the whole entire thing kind of just melted in your mouth. So that kind of stuck."

Hoverter won the National Youth Entrepreneurship Challenge which comes with $10,000 to develop the idea. She’s now conducting feasibility studies to see whether other condiments or instant hot chocolate might work well with soluble packets.

Football inspired an invention by 15-year-old freshman fullback Braeden Benedict from Palos Verdes Peninsula High School. Two years ago, he says he had a teammate who suffered a concussion in a game. "And they didn’t know about it for one or two weeks afterwards. Just because he couldn’t focus at all in classes. And so after that, he missed weeks of school, he was really out of it, and it he can’t play football anymore just because it’s too dangerous."

So Benedict, the son of two engineers, invented a liquid sensor that turns a white patch on the front of the football helmet bright red when a player gets hit really hard. "What I was doing first of all is I was trying to develop a low-cost sensor that could be used for youth in high school sports that would tell you that you’ve received a hit that could have caused a concussion. So that way at least they’ll be able to check you out, the medical staff there, so at least they’ll have some knowledge of it. 'Cause lots of times, they can’t even see the hits."

Braeden Benedict’s helmet sensor invention won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. That came with a $25,000 prize — a down payment on a billion dollar idea from a high school science whiz.