Oakes student's football helmet science project scores two White House visits

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Oakes College first-year student Maria Hanes was featured on the Twitter feed of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy after her White House Science Fair visit Tuesday. Particular attention focused on her football-themed shoes. (Photo courtesy of the White House)

A chance to visit the White House and chat with the president is a pretty big deal for most people, but UC Santa Cruz student Maria Hanes had the opportunity twice this week.

First, the 19-year-old Oakes College freshman was invited to the White House Science Fair on Tuesday (May 27) to demonstrate her "Concussion Cushion," a rubberized covering for football helmets to lessen the impact to players' heads. She had created the science project last year as a high school senior and it won the top school and county prizes and placed in the 2013 California State Science Fair.

Then, President Obama invited her to return to the White House two days later for his summit on youth sports and concussions. The gathering was focused at finding new ways to identify, treat and prevent serious head injuries, particularly in youth sports.

Football fanatic

Hanes is a professed football fanatic who wants to become the first woman collegiate football coach. Her 18-year-old brother has suffered four concussions and can no longer play football.

Her project tests helmets with different inner and outer cushioning materials — including gel and memory foam and impact-absorbing outer coverings. The helmets are mounted on robots so they can be bashed together, testing the materials. The man who helped her obtain parts for the robots nominated her for the science fair, the fourth for the White House that this year focused on getting girls involved in STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) fields.

Hanes is not a science major. She is planning on majoring in business management economics with a minor in technology management. She said she got the idea when she dropped her cell phone while bringing water to the football team at Desert High School on the Edwards Air Force Base where she was team manager for three years.

"I picked it up knowing it was completely fine, because I've dropped it 100 times. I said 'Hey what if we put something like this on helmets.'"

Whirlwind week

Her whirlwind week began with a phone call last week from her mom that the White House had invited her to attend the science fair. "I was on one of the school buses" when the call came, she said. "I cried."

First came a Greyhound bus ride back home to Lancaster, Calif. on Thursday the 22nd, then a Sunday flight to Washington, D.C. with her mom.

Hanes said she was at her exhibit in the White House Blue Room when she first spotted the president in the adjoining Red Room. "I was so nervous." But then Obama entered the room and walked right up to her and started talking about her project.

"He was so interested, genuinely interested, it made me feel so relaxed," she recalled. "We primarily talked about project, how I came up with it."

Then, she said, the president jokingly said, "stick around."

She and her mother were scheduled to fly back to California Tuesday evening and were able to squeeze in an interview with the Washington Post. The Associated Press had also featured her project as one of its examples in its article on the fair.

They were at the hotel getting ready to leave when the White House called again asking if they'd had a good day, and "'how would you like to come back Thursday,'" she said.  

So it was two more days in DC and another visit to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., this time her seat was in the second row on the aisle.

She's now back in southern California, TV interviews are scheduled for the weekend, then back to Santa Cruz.

Why UC Santa Cruz?

Ok, we know what you're asking: What is an ardent football fan, who grew up in Oklahoma as a "huge Sooners fan" and wants to be a coach, doing at UC Santa Cruz, a campus that famously does not have a football team and has a banana slug as its mascot?

"Let's put it this way, I got a good offer," Hanes said.

At first she wasn't sure she made the right choice in coming to UCSC.  But "after my second quarter, I fell in love with it. I love UCSC. I love Santa Cruz," she said.  

And her past week in Washington, meeting President Obama, and congress members, and other assorted "important people?"

"It was awesome!"