Mercer Island eighth-grader dazzles at White House Science Fair

Jasper Hugunin poses with Bill Nye, the Science Guy, at the second White House Science Fair in Washington, D.C., earlier this month. - Contributed Photo
Jasper Hugunin poses with Bill Nye, the Science Guy, at the second White House Science Fair in Washington, D.C., earlier this month.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

Jasper Hugunin, 13, got a phone call giving him and his dad, Jim Hugunin, less than a week to make arrangements to get to Washington, D.C., to present his award-winning computer game at the second White House Science Fair.

Hugunin’s game was among several submitted from 40 national science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions.

STEM is President Obama’s initiative to promote a renewed focus on science, technology, engineering and math, something Hugunin and his mom, Aleta Finnila, believe should be given similar attention to as sports.

Hugunin entered his game, “Robot Commander,” into the national video game challenge online, along with a short written piece about the game.

In a sudden whirlwind of events, he found himself in the East Wing of the White House last week.

“It’s like a big house, a very nice house,” Hugunin said.

He said the event was set up like a regular science fair, but the manager of the competition had graphic designers make professional posters to go with the projects, and organizers had arranged ahead of time for computers and monitors.

“Robot Commander” is sort of like a maze by proxy. But it is also a way for kids to learn basic programming. By directing your little robot on the screen toward a goal, you are performing very basic coding by maneuvering your robot using a series of commands.

“Hopefully it gets kids excited about programming,” Hugunin said. “The computer poses the challenges.”

Indeed, there are 12 levels of Robot Commander, and the 12th one gets pretty hairy. But both Hugunin’s little sister Mithril, 11, and his 60-year-old grandmother have made it to level 12, he said.

Hugunin’s hope is that kids will try his game and get involved in more conventional programming.

“We treat failure as such an awful thing,” he said. “But failure is an option in programming.”

He personally was able to present his game to the head of NASA, Charles F. Bolden, and he met James Shelton, the U.S. Department of Education assistant deputy secretary, Jane Lubchenco, the administrator of NOAA, Subra Suresh, the director of the National Science Foundation, Patrick Gallagher, the director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, and Bill Nye, the Science Guy.

Although he did not meet President Obama personally, he was in row two as the president addressed the students for about 15 minutes to congratulate them.

Jasper and Jim Hugunin visited the various museums and monuments of D.C. in their spare time. Jasper said he was particularly impressed with the new Martin Luther King memorial.

The White House Science Fair was mostly an acknowledgement of the achievements of these bright students, but Finnila said she thinks it was also to promote STEM, which is quite new.

“I think he (Obama) is raising the spotlight on science and engineering,” she said.

Hugunin also enjoys reading science fiction and fantasy, and playing other computer games. He said he is keeping his options open so he can go to any college he wants to, but he plans to go into computer engineering, like his dad, or computer game design.

Hugunin’s game is free and online at

Local science fairs start soon

Local science fairs at the elementary schools on Mercer Island will be held soon.

Island Park Elementary’s fair is March 1 at 6 p.m., the Lakeridge Science Fair is March 7 from 5 to 8 p.m. and the West Mercer Science Fair is March 5 at PEAK from 4:30 to 6:45 p.m.


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