Obama: US students' performance in science, math is 'unacceptable'

"One of the great joys of being president is getting to meet young people like all of you — and some of the folks in the other room who I just had a chance to see some of their exhibits and the work that they were doing," Obama said. "It’s inspiring — and I never miss a chance to see cool robots when I get a chance."

Obama also acknowledged the presence of newly sworn-in National Science Foundation director Subra Suresh and confirmed earlier reports he will appear Dec. 8 on the Discovery Channel television show "Mythbusters." The show's hosts Jamie Hyneman and Adam Savage were also in attendance.

"I can announce today that I taped a special guest appearance for their show — although I didn’t get to blow anything up," he said to laughter. "I was a little frustrated with that."

Obama praised the students who took part in the science fair and said academic achievements often don't get the attention they deserve. He compared inviting the students to the White House with hosting the NBA Champion Los Angeles Lakers or the Super Bowl-winning New Orleans Saints.

"When you win first place at a science fair, nobody is rushing the field or dumping Gatorade over your head," Obama said. "But in many ways, our future depends on what happens in those contests — what happens when a young person is engaged in conducting an experiment, or writing a piece of software, or solving a hard math problem or designing a new gadget."

The president also singled out the final young lady to whom he spoke for teaching herself chemistry between her freshman and sophomore years of high school and working to create a new drug that kills cancer cells using light activation. Labs across the country are currently contacting her to see if her findings might help to cure cancer.

But the young people assembled for the event are the exception, not the rule Obama said.

"There are tens of millions of talented young people out there who haven’t been similarly inspired, and we’ve got to figure out how do we make sure that everybody who’s got that same talent and inclination, how do we give them the tools that they need so that they can succeed, so that they’re entering international science competitions, so that they’re up to snuff when it comes to math," Obama said.

The president then pointed to the Department of Education's Race to the Top program and stimulus funds that allowed state and local governments to avoid teacher layoffs as evidence that his administration takes seriously its role in improving education in the U.S. He also highlighted programs from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) that collectively will invest $15 million in the next year to spur interest in science, technology and mathematics.

Monday's science fair was the kick-off to a week of activities that culminates in the USA Science and Engineering Festival on the National Mall this weekend. More than one million people are expected to take part in events across the nation.