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Hammond says, “As Angie and I explained different aspects of the science, he would stop us and ask specific questions about the technology. He wanted to know when these innovations would become companies, startups, and ultimately new jobs. It was clear that the president knew the importance of science and engineering for both its practical contributions and its downstream economic value.”

After the researchers began explaining the battery system, Hammond says, Obama turned to reporters who accompanied him on the tour and said, “Did you understand that?”–and then proceeded to explain the information in his own words.

“He was exactly correct,” Belcher says. “I asked him if he wanted to teach my class.” When Belcher, a professor of materials science and engineering and biological engineering, explained that her biologically based system made it possible to conduct a billion experiments at a time, he interrupted to say, “Really?” Belcher answered, “Yes, we can,” to which he quipped, “That was my slogan, you know.” Overall, he was “serious, but kind of joking at the same time,” Belcher says.

“His demeanor was very inquisitive and playful,” says Vladimir Bulovic, an associate professor of communications and technology. Before the president left his lab, Bulovic–at the request of some of his students–asked if he would be willing to “memorialize the moment.” He was standing next to equipment that many of the students use almost daily. “He graciously did sign it,” he says, “and added ‘Great work!’ up at the top.” Since the president had already seen all the other presentations at that point, ­Bulovic says he and his students interpreted that as “a message to the entire MIT community.”

Mechanical-engineering professor Alex Slocum ‘82, SM ‘83, PhD ‘85, demonstrated his plan for offshore wind turbines that have a built-in energy storage system based on pumped water. Slocum says, “It’s clear that he really listens; his eyes are constantly in motion, taking in information. He asked some really good questions, and he was very warm and friendly, with a good sense of humor.”

It was evident that “he really wants to learn–he genuinely cares,” Slocum adds. “He wants to know what can be done, and what is being done. It was really refreshing.”

From Building 13, the presidential party and their hosts got back in the motorcade for the short drive to Kresge. Hundreds of students and onlookers thronged against the police barricades that lined Mass. Ave., the side streets, and the whole area around the auditorium, craning to catch a glimpse of the president.

In the auditorium, President Hockfield spoke briefly, saying that “President Obama has articulated a powerful vision for restoring economic growth, creating jobs, and counteracting climate change by investing aggressively in clean-energy research and development.” She hailed the historic significance of the visit, calling it “a tribute to the groundbreaking work of our faculty and students.”

Hockfield added, “We share President Obama’s view that clean energy is the defining challenge of this era. To meet the doubling of global energy demand by 2050, to drive new patents, new products, new industries and new jobs, and to mitigate climate change, clean energy is the only avenue.”

Obama, a graduate of Harvard Law School, began with a few quips about MIT. “It’s always been a dream of mine to visit the most prestigious school in Cambridge, Massachusetts,” he said. “Hold on a sec–certainly the most prestigious school in this part of Cambridge.” He added, “I’ll probably be here for a while–I understand a bunch of engineering students put my motorcade on top of Building 10.”

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Credit: official White House photo by Pete Souza

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