President Barack Obama greets students gathered in the cafeteria… (Amy Davis, Baltimore Sun )
Students at Parkville Middle School & Center of Technology have lots of high-tech equipment at their disposal — laptops on which they can make educational videos, for example, and labs in which to study hydraulics and aeronautics.
But for this particular project, they used lower-tech materials such as crumpled aluminum foil, powdered drink mix, soil, water and a baking pan to show how pesticides, construction dirt and rain can run off to pollute the Chesapeake Bay watershed.
"That's nasty," their visitor said Monday morning of the resulting orange-tinted sludge.
That the visitor was President Barack Obama made the lesson all the more valuable.
"When the president came into our classroom, it was pretty unreal," said Collin Vincent, 13. After a while, though, the eighth-grade student said, Obama seemed like "a longtime friend. He was actually genuinely interested in the experiments."
Obama stopped in on the environmental science class as part of the unveiling of his 2012 budget proposal. He used the Baltimore County school as a backdrop to convey a message that, even at a time when he is calling for cuts in other spending, he is increasing investment in education — particularly in the math, science and engineering fields that are a focus at Parkville.
"We wanted to come here to highlight the great work that you guys are doing in math and science and engineering, because we want the kind of success that we're seeing at this school spread all across the country," he told about 340 eighth-grade students gathered in the school's cafeteria.
"And that requires we make investments in great teachers and good equipment and labs and the Internet," he said. "And it means that we've got to make sure that we're emphasizing every day how important education is, and we're putting our money behind it."
Obama sent a $3.73 trillion spending plan to Congress on Monday that includes a freeze on annual domestic spending over the next five years. But Obama's plan, which he said would cut the deficit by more than $400 billion over the next decade, has already drawn opposition from Republicans who say they want further cuts.
Obama's budget calls for $4.3 billion for recruiting and training teachers and principals, a portion of which would be devoted to those involved in science, technology, engineering and math — or STEM — fields. The goal is to get 10,000 new STEM teachers in schools.
"Even as we cut out things that we can afford to do without, we have a responsibility to invest in those areas that will have the biggest impact in our future — that's especially true when it comes to education," Obama said at Parkville.
About 100 people had lined nearby streets and stood on the porches and steps of houses to watch and wave as the presidential motorcade drove up to the school shortly after 10:10 a.m. Some held heart-shaped balloons and welcoming signs, including 8-year-old Nova Knoedler, who held a poster that said, "Happy Valentine's Day President Obama." His visit also drew a handful of protesters who waved signs of their own, urging the president to, as one said, "STOP Reckless Spending."
Inside, students passed through metal detectors and occasionally allowed their excitement to break through their more typical middle-school cool. His first stop was Susan Yoder's gifted-and-talented environmental science class.
"When he first came in, my heart just stopped because he is the president," Ugonna Mbaekwe, 13, said later that afternoon.
"I was nervous," said Kiera Lane, also 13. "It was nice to see he was interested in what we were doing. It was like we had known him forever."
Obama watched videos that the students had made to explain their watershed project to younger children. That prompted him to note that his daughters, Malia and Sasha, sometimes participate in "buddy programs" with younger students, who often will become interested in science if they see older kids engaged in it.
Adele Tang, 13, said the president seemed impressed by the video. "It made me glad that he treats us as important as him," she said.
After spending about 10 minutes with the class, he shook hands with several kids and said, "I'm proud of you, keep up the good work."
Then he went into a nearby lab where a podium with the presidential seal had been set up amid the blackboards and periodic tables. There, he offered prepared remarks about his budget, saying that it brings domestic discretionary spending to the lowest level as a share of the economy since the Eisenhower administration.
Obama then took to the cafeteria of the school for a brief assembly with the eighth-grade students, wishing them a happy Valentine's Day and sending hellos from his wife and two daughters — and receiving hi's and waves to take back to the White House. Then, he asked for a couple of questions from students, drawing a flurry of hands.
"What does it feel like to be president?" one boy asked.