Lights, Camera, White House! Young Filmmakers Have Presidential Premieres

Shelly Ortiz, a student at the Metropolitan Arts Institute high school in Phoenix, will get a taste of the excitement that winners at the Academy Awards ceremony in Los Angeles on Sunday will feel.

Ortiz's film, "Technology, Documentary, My Dad and Me" – which depicts how the technology available in her school has allowed her to find her passion making films and telling the story of the people she loves – may not up for an Oscar, but the 17-year-old was named one of the 16 student filmmakers selected as finalists for the first-ever White House Film Festival, held on Friday in collaboration with the American Film Institute.

At the festival, President Barack Obama recognized the best of nearly 2,500 films that were submitted by K-12 students after the White House put out the call for short videos on the role technology plays in their education. It's one of the president's favorite subjects.

Obama recently set a goal of wiring virtually every classroom with high-speed Internet by 2018.

In January, he announced $750 million in commitments from U.S. companies to help move the project along, including $100 million in iPads, computers and other tools from Apple, $100 million in cash and in-kind contributions from Verizon, and discounted Windows software from Microsoft.

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    The Federal Communications Commission also pledged $2 billion to connect 20 million students in 15,000 schools over the next two years.

    At the White House on Friday, Obama announced an additional $400 million in private-sector pledges for the ConnectEd initiative, bringing to more than $1 billion the total value of cash and goods committed to the project. Adobe is donating $300 million worth of its software products to teachers and students. The Hungarian software company Prezi is providing $100 million worth of its products.

    "In a country where we expect free WiFi with our coffee, we should definitely demand it in our schools," Obama said last month at a Maryland school where students are assigned iPads for use in class and at home. He even borrowed a student's tablet to make a short film of his own.

    Obama said the average school has the same Internet speed as the average home but serves 200 times as many people. He lamented that just 30 percent of U.S. students have true high-speed Internet in their classrooms, compared with 100 percent of South Korean students.

    Friday's festival was dreamed up as a way to showcase the many ways students use technology and the president's proposal.

    The videos could be no longer than 3 minutes. Each was viewed multiple times by an "academy" of judges that was made up of White House officials and others.

    The 16 films chosen as finalists — no winners will be declared — were screened in the East Room. They were separated into four categories: Young Visionaries (including Ortiz's entry), Future Innovators, World of Tomorrow and Building Bridges, and were presented by actor Kal Penn, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, Bill Nye the Science Guy and AFI President and CEO Bob Gazzale.

    Late-night comedian Conan O'Brien addressed the gathering by video.

    The young filmmakers range in age from first-graders to 17-year-old high school students and hailed from 12 states and the D.C.

    A group of first-grade friends from Silver Spring, Md., collaborated on "Technology and Me," in which they offer their take on the past, present and future of classroom technology. One boy declared chalkboards "old school" while a girl explained that "now there are computers and it's more easier." Another girl predicted a future classroom with robots.

    In "Beyond the Crossfire," Chula Vista, Calif., High Tech High Schoolers Gabriel Garcia, Tirsa Mercado and Rachel Walden submitted a short version of a longer documentary about how to reduce violence at school and at home.

    In the film, "Alex," 11th-grader Mitch Buangsuwon of California entered a video about his brother, Alex, who suffers from dyslexia and dysgraphia, which affect his reading and writing skills. Alex talks about feeling left behind because he didn't read as well as the other kids. But after switching to a new school, where he was given a tablet for research and writing, the seventh-grader says his reading went from a third-grade level to a sixth-grade level in a year.

    "Not feeling left behind feels really nice," Alex said. "My school is a good example of how everybody can benefit from technology because everybody learns differently."

    No thank-you speeches were given. No gold-toned statuettes will be handed out. The budding filmmakers instead headed out knowing that they helped highlight an Obama policy goal.

    "It's a celebration of the way they're already using technology and the importance of the president's initiative for increasing that over time," said Nate Lubin, acting director of the White House Office of Digital Strategy.

    Beyond that, the finalists were given an exclusive look at the first episode of "Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey," a new TV series by Fox and the National Geographic Channel on the importance of science, technology, engineering and math that is set to premiere on March 9.

    Based on reporting by the Associated Press.

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