Greybull science student relishes White House visit

2012-02-18T00:00:00Z Greybull science student relishes White House visitBy MARTIN KIDSTON mkidston@billingsgazette.com The Billings Gazette

GREYBULL, Wyo. -- The library at the White House was pretty impressive, Travis Sylvester said, and President Barack Obama was a commanding presence.

Sylvester, a Greybull High School senior, joined a group of science, technology, engineering and math students from across the nation last week in meeting Obama at the White House Science Fair.

Toss in the chief administrator for NASA, the director of the White House Office of Science and Technology and Bill Nye "the Science Guy," among others, and Sylvester's trip to Washington, D.C., was much more than a vacation.

"I was three rows back from the president at the live press conference, and I've never been that star-struck in my life," Sylvester said. "To be that close to the leader of the free world was amazing. Everything they say about him being a great talker is true."

Sylvester's project, "Improving Mine Reclamation Through Continuing Innovation," earned him a coveted spot at the White House Science Fair.

It wasn't his first brush with success.

The Wyoming native's work to expedite and improve mine reclamation has won recognition at science symposiums across the county, including first and second place in the environmental category at the International Sustainable World Project in Texas.

Sylvester, whose senior class at Greybull High includes 39 students, also took second place in environmental management at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in California, and he earned the China Association for Science and Technology award.

"I started entering the Science Fair my freshman year," Sylvester said. "I didn't do well and I wasn't going to do it again. My dad came home one night and told me about fertilizers on mine reclamation. He encouraged me to try one more year. I did it as a courtesy to him."

Beth Cable, coordinator of the Wyoming State Science Fair, said the science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) program encourages students in grades 6-12 to plan, research and present a project in their area of interest.

The program also provides students with hands-on science experience and allows them to interact with professionals in their field. She said Wyoming is working to increase student interest and aptitude in the STEM fields.

"I got a call from a woman at the White House asking if I could send her some information on a couple of students who I thought could represent Wyoming at the White House Science Fair," Cable said. "I sent her the names of three kids and a description of them and what they'd done."

Sylvester's selection by the White House from Wyoming's field of three was somewhat random, Cable said. But earning the opportunity was well deserved and it places Sylvester at the heart of Obama's new "Educate to Innovate" campaign.

At the White House event, which saw Obama fire a marshmallow gun to the surprise of Secret Service agents in attendance, the president announced several new initiatives to increase the number of students participating in STEM projects and to prepare the teachers to educate them.

A recent report found that 1 million additional graduates with STEM degrees will be needed over the next decade to fill jobs that require such skills.

"When students excel in math and science, they help America compete for the jobs and industries of the future," Obama said at the event.

While Sylvester rubbed shoulders with national science leaders, he also met students from other parts of the country, including Taylor Wilson of Reno, Nev., who's conducting research on ways to detect nuclear threats and to develop an environmentally friendly system capable of detecting small quantities of nuclear material.

Shree Bose, a 17-year old senior from Fort Worth, Texas, was invited to the White House after she discovered a new way to improve ovarian cancer treatment for patients when they've built up a resistance to certain chemotherapy drugs.

Sylvester said his own project looks at revegetating defunct mines during the reclamation process. He said he's developed an efficient "conservation seeder," along with new techniques to expedite vegetative growth while neutralizing the chemicals and pollutants left in the soil.

"When I graduate, I'm starting a business -- T-93 Reclamation," Sylvester said. "It's going to utilize all the research I've done in the last three years. I'm going to go to the companies and tell them how it will benefit their reclamation programs."

Sylvester will display his project in the environmental management category at the Wyoming State Science Fair on March 4-6 at the University of Wyoming.

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