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America's Science Hopefuls Gather for Talent-Search Finals

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Washington--The marble floor of the National Academy of Science's Great Hall is littered with boxes--flat boxes, square boxes, portfolios, with labels on them: This End Up! Handle With Care! A tally of the return address labels would reveal that the owners come from 16 states and Puerto Rico. The packages are all addressed to "Science Talent Search."

The owners, 40 high-school seniors who have been named finalists in the annual competition designed to identify promising young scientists, engineers, and mathematicians, are conducting a different sort of search. They are looking for the screws and bolts that will hold their exhibits together, for the correct f-stop on their cameras so they can take pictures of one another standing in front of the exhibits, for that vital piece of plastic without which they cannot finish constructing the model.

"My research on dopamine led to my research with animals, which is leading to big problems unpacking," says Judith S. Simms, a senior at Wolfson Junior-Senior High School in Jacksonville, Fla., referring to the photographs, diagrams, and models that she is sorting out from a big pile of crumpled newspapers. The invertebrate animals in question did not accompany her to Washington.

Reassembling the projects that a panel of eight judges chose as the best of 824 entries from high schools across the country is, for the students, one of the last steps in a process that began when they first started working on the projects. In many cases, they have been exploring a topic for several years, and will continue to do so after they pack up and go home.

Some of them may also return to the National Academy of Sciences later in their careers to be recognized for their achievements. Regardless of whether they finish as top winners, the 40 finalists in the 42-year-old competition are regarded as some of the nation's most talented future scientists and mathematicians.

Sponsored by Westinghouse Electric Cor-poration and administered by Science Service, a nonprofit Washington-based education and publishing organization, the Science Talent Search has a history of spotting scientific talent early and accurately. Five talent-search winners have gone on to win Nobel Prizes, and two have been awarded the Field Medal for extraordinary achievement in mathematics. All 1,640 of the finalists chosen since 1942 have gone to college; 99 percent have graduated with degrees in science, mathematics, or related fields. Seventy-five percent have earned either Ph.D.'s or M.D.'s.

Meet With President Reagan

For the next two days, the students will spend part of their time standing by the exhibits, telling interested visitors about the studies that distinguished them in the eyes of the judges. They will meet with President Reagan and members of Congress, visit museums, and talk with scientists both informally and as part of the formal judging process.

At the end, one of them will receive a $12,000 scholarship; others will receive smaller amounts.

Now, however, most of the finalists seem more preoccupied with getting to know one another, setting up the exhibits, and comparing notes about the rigorous judging interviews that many have completed.

"They asked me to describe the atomic structure," one young woman tells another, "and I said 'of what?' They said, 'an atom,' and I said 'oh, that atomic structure."'

"I think I speak for everyone when I say that the judging interviews are horrendous and torturous, and only a masochist would enjoy them,'' says Larry Gene Spears Jr., a student at Cypress Creek High School in Houston whose project explored ways of storing solar energy. "They seemed to avoid talking about the project like the plague. They seemed to be testing your ability to recall things you'd known once but forgotten."

The formal interviews, during which four scientists question one student, are indeed rigorous, Westinghouse officials say, and it is no accident that the judges ask questions far beyond what even an unusually knowledgeable high-school student might know. "They want to see how they approach the question," says Robert Henderson of the company's public-relations office, noting that in science, the process of arriving at a conclusion is as important as the conclusion.

Celeste A. Ewalt, a student at Central Catholic High School in Lafayette, Ind., reached her conclusions after studying first-hand the phenomenon she chose to explore--explosions in grain elevators. She has finished setting up her exhibit, and is polishing the blue plastic frame, to which she has pinned diagrams and photographs of the model grain elevators.

For the past three years, she has worked on developing a system to prevent secondary explosions in grain elevators, which are frequently more destructive than the initial explosion. Explosions in grain elevators are not something that New York City students, for example, would have occasion to know or care about. But in Indiana and across the Midwest, they are relatively common, and Ms. Ewalt became interested after hearing many news reports about them.

"You have to know where it [the explosion] starts," Ms. Ewalt explains. "I wanted to see the area where it started and talk to the people who were there. I could get a lot of that from a book, but I wanted to know for myself. I thought that first-hand knowledge would be better."

A Model That Reacts to Pressure

Working in her basement, with help from her father on some of the wiring and construction problems, Ms. Ewalt built a model that reacts to the pressure generated by an explosion by releasing a substance that will suppress the explosion before it has time to spread.

She started with an idea of how a model of this sort might work, she says, but modified her plans in the process of creating one. "You can't go into it thinking, 'It'll go like that,"' she says. "You should start out with the basic idea, but inevitably, it strays a lot."

There were, she says, "several times when I could have given up," when unexpected results frustrated her progress. "But you can't do that, you have to keep going to see if it will work or it won't."

The experiment requires physical as well as intellectual care. "Several times I got a nice flame and almost burned my hair," Ms. Ewalt says. She plans to construct another model when she returns home. "If it doesn't work, it could very well blow up in my face. So I'd better be careful."

Some of the finalists, like Ms. Ewalt, worked alone; others worked with science teachers in school; some were able to work with university researchers in laboratories equipped with the latest and most sophisticated equipment.

"This would be impossible to do in a high-school lab," says Michelle H. Schiffer, who found a mentor, Dr. John Shinsky, at Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, to help with her recombinant dna project. "It was the greatest opportunity. He's the sort of guy who was always there for you."

The students are interested in winning, but many acknowledge that the competition is extremely stiff. Ms. Ewalt, a veteran of many science fairs, says that this is the first one in which virtually all of the other participants seem more well qualified than she is. Their aspirations are high; many plan to attend Harvard, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, or other highly selective schools.

But the knowledge that they are--and will continue to be--competitors does not prevent them from becoming friends and from sharing one another's triumphs. On the final day of their stay in Washington, the scholarship recipients are announced.

When the moderator reads the name of Paul Ning, a student at New York's Bronx High School of Science, as the first-place winner, his friend and co-finalist from the school jumps up and shouts. Then, two students lift Mr. Ning on their shoulders and carry him up to receive his trophy.

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