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5 Pittsburgh students and the very cool White House Frontiers Conference they attended

Melanie Cox McCluskey
December06/ 2016

How many high school kids get to attend a national conference, let alone one featuring the President of the United States?

Anything is possible in Pittsburgh, a hotbed of innovation and technology and the first city to host the White House Frontiers Conference which was attended by President Barack Obama. At the conference he spoke and expressed his love for science, sharing his vision for future generations to pursue success in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“We are working to help all our children understand that they have a place in tech,” said the President, onstage at Carnegie Mellon University.

Among the world-renowned neuroscientists, astronauts and entrepreneurs at the invitation-only event were five very lucky local students with a bright future in STEM fields.

Image by Melanie Cox McCluskey
Image by Melanie Cox McCluskey

The national event — the first of its kind — explored innovation in the United States and across the world, focusing on building U.S. capabilities in science and technology for the 21st century. Throughout the day, Obama and the other participants underscored the importance of investing in STEM education.

It made quite an impression on the students. Meet them here and see how dedicated they are to science as a career path.

Joe Cavanaugh

It was an easy decision for the South Fayette High School senior to visit the Local Track, one of five science-oriented sessions at the conference. Topics ranged from using Big Data and machine learning to counter drug abuse, to autonomous vehicles as the future of transportation. Cavanaugh was most impressed by the balance between regulating driverless cars for safety and innovative driverless technology, he says. His interest in transportation issues links back to his work with other South Fayette students on inventing the BusBudE Secure Travel Notification System, which alerts parents via text message when their children enter or leave their school bus.

Amalia Esposito

Virtual  intelligence met human intelligence when Montour High School junior Amalia Esposito sat down with her new friend SARA to talk about the wonders of science. SARA — a Socially Aware Robot Assistant — engaged Esposito with a friendly back-and-forth that provided a glimpse into the future of personal assistants. Passionate about astronomy, Esposito attended the Interplanetary Track. There, space exploration entrepreneurs shared the stage with astronauts to illuminate the possibilities of manufacturing on Mars and asteroid prediction. Most intriguing to Esposito was Vanderbilt University astrophysicist Jedidah Isler, who encouraged educational leaders to remove racial and socioeconomic barriers.

Kai Shaikh

When blind physicist Wanda L. Diaz Merced dimmed the lights at the interplanetary track and played a melody of chimes representing the brightness of the stars in the galaxy, Fox Chapel High School student Kai Shaikh was impressed. But it was Merced’s argument for making space exploration accessible for all that really stuck with Shaikh.

The senior, who is interested in astrophysics and other physics fields, said he appreciated the discussions of inclusion and saw the vast possibilities in the interplanetary realm. A national and regional award winner in science subjects, Shaikh is known for his focus on human impact over data in isolation. His teachers noted that his thoughtful approach to processing interplanetary discoveries demonstrates wisdom and empathy.

Shaikh, who is also interested in climate change issues, said he’ll pass on traveling to space for now.

“I like Earth,” Shaikh said, adding that he would miss the diversions of modern life on our planet. “I like trees and birds… Plus, I have a little brother and I would miss playing with him.”

From left: Anish, Parv and Joe Cavanaugh. Image by Melanie Cox McCluskey
From left: Anish Thangavelu, Parv Shrivastava and Joe Cavanaugh. Image by Melanie Cox McCluskey

Parv Shrivastava

The future appears to be unlimited for this early bloomer. South Fayette freshman Parv Shrivastava has just begun his high school career, but he’s already served as the project manager for two inventions that help parents and kids. In addition to working with Cavanaugh and fellow freshman Anish Thangavelu on BusBudE, Shrivastava contributed to the development and beta test for MyEduDecks, a customizable flashcard application. (The software app personalizes learning for kids ages 3 to 8.) Shirvastava, who taught himself the programming languages Java and C++, sat in on the Local Track of the Frontiers Conference. Among his many achievements, Shrivastava was part of a team of students who wrote and taught an after-school Python programming course to his district’s middle schoolers and teachers throughout the region.

Anish Thangavelu

Anish Thangavelu learned about police departments joining forces with data science experts to solve advanced transportation issues. The South Fayette freshman compared the cooperative spirit between those two sectors with a collaboration at his school between the core classes teaming up with the tech ed department to connect STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art and math) in a school project.

“It really opened my eyes to what the future might be like,” said Thangavelu, who worked with Cavanaugh and Shirvastava on creating the BusBudE safety alert.

Melanie Cox McCluskey

Melanie is the editor of Kidsburgh and a freelance journalist whose work has appeared in The Philadelphia Inquirer, NEXTPittsburgh, The Pittsburgh Anthology and Pop City. Before returning to her Pittsburgh roots, Melanie worked as a copywriter in New York City. She currently lives in Mt. Lebanon with her family.