TERRE HAUTE —
Caleb Gonser, a finalist in a national middle school science competition, not only met President Obama at the White House on Monday — he witnessed political history with the ongoing budget standoff.
Gonser, 13, was in the nation’s capital as one of only 30 finalists in the Broadcom MASTERS competition, which stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars.
A seventh-grader at Honey Creek Middle School, Gonser was the only finalist from Indiana.
On Monday, the 30 finalists had the opportunity to meet Obama, in between the president’s meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and his comments to the media on the status of budget negotiations.
Initially, Obama met the students in the White House Rose Garden, where he shook their hands, said a few words and posed for pictures.
When Obama shook his hand, Gonser told the president his name, city and state. “You’re the all-state baseball player, aren’t you,” Obama said to him, referring to his participation in Cal Ripken baseball.
The president talked to the students about the importance of their work in the STEM fields and how proud he was of their efforts.
Obama then invited the group to the Oval Office and gave them a tour, not something he typically does. The students got to touch Obama’s desk and a set of pens on the desk, and the president told them about artwork and early patents in his office.
The students later wondered if Obama used one of those pens that night to sign legislation authorizing pay for the military, despite the impending government shutdown.
“It was pretty exciting,” Gonser said Thursday afternoon in an interview at Honey Creek Middle School. The students spent about 30 minutes with Obama.
“They were all floating on air when they came back to the hotel,” said Rusty Gonser, Caleb’s dad, who accompanied him to Washington. They left for the nation’s capital last Friday and returned Wednesday.
Caleb shares the same birthday with Obama — Aug. 4.
Reflecting on his several days in Washington for the competition, Caleb said, “It was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. … I wish I could do it again.”
He and his dad received an all-expenses paid trip to Washington, D.C.
To be considered, middle school students must place in the top 10 percent of a regional or state science fair that is associated with the Society for Science and the Public. There were 6,000 nominees who could go online and fill out an application.
From there, 1,700 students completed an application and 300 semifinalists were selected. From that group, 30 finalists were chosen to go to Washington — including Caleb.
The contest taps some of the nation’s top middle school science students to present posters exhibiting their individual research projects. Then, students are divided into teams to solve a series of STEM challenges.
Gonser’s science fair research project was titled, “Space vs. No Space: Competition for Oviposition Sites in Bean Beetles.”
He studied the bean beetle — a common crop pest in parts of Africa and Asia. He previously studied whether female beetles preferred to lay their eggs on small or large beans. This time, he wanted to find out if females prefer to lay eggs on beans that don’t already have another female’s eggs on them.
All finalists received medals and also had asteroids named after them. “That’s pretty cool,” Caleb said. His sixth-grade teacher, Dustin Speth, also had an asteroid named after him, and the school will receive $1,000.
The 13-year-old said his parents inspired him to take on his research project, and he likes insects. His parents, including mom Elaina Tuttle, are both biology faculty members at Indiana State University and work with the Center for Genomic Advocacy.
“This is quite an honor,” Rusty Gonser said of his son’s accomplishment.
Tuttle described it as “a wonderful experience, once in a lifetime.” She did not get to go to Washington.
“As a parent, there’s just no better feeling than when your child is excelling and getting an opportunity to meet President Obama and interacting with these other finalists,” she said.
Some of the group projects Caleb participated in involved circuits, designing a house that would withstand a hurricane and reverse engineering of the brain. They also did a project with a Raspberry Pie.
Caleb and his dad did get to visit museums before the government shutdown Tuesday, but they were affected by the shutdown. They did not get to visit Capitol Hill, where Caleb had hoped to meet Sen. Dan Coats; that visit was canceled because of the government shutdown. Also, they did not get to visit the Library of Congress for the same reason.
One night at dinner, they saw U.S. Rep. Paul Ryan, the U.S. House Budget Committee chairman.
Because of his parents’ work, Caleb has been exposed to a lot of science. He’s heard science speakers at ISU, and he has accompanied his parents when they research white-throated sparrows in the Adirondack Mountains.
“He has netted birds and pipeheaded DNA,” his dad said. “When we’re in the field, he is there doing everything we do because he’s curious.”
But Caleb’s interests go beyond science. He likes basketball and tennis and participates in an Olympic developmental program for soccer. He’s interested in pursuing physical therapy as a career.
The Broadcom MASTERS competition is sponsored by Broadcom Foundation and the Society for Science and the Public.
Sue Loughlin can be reached at 812-231-4235 or firstname.lastname@example.org.