Prospect of Elite Competitions Inspires Top-Notch Training for High Schoolers

By Brenda Iasevoli — December 08, 2017 3 min read
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This week, four high school students were awarded $100,000 scholarships for their scientific research in the Siemens Competition in math, science, and technology.

Andrew Komo, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., won the $100,000 individual prize for developing a coded system to help create trust between bidders and auctioneers in sophisticated online auctions that deal in products ranging from diamonds to telecommunications equipment.

Juniors from Half Hollow Hills High School East and West, in Dix Hills, N.J.—Jillian Parker, Arooba Ahmed, and Jiachen Lee—shared the $100,000 team prize for identifying a previously unknown protein that could play a role in Alzheimer’s and other diseases.

While the competitors are matched with professor mentors who help the aspiring young scientists to nail down a research topic and guide them through tough spots in the research process, it’s the support of the high school that often drives student success.

“It’s the whole school coming together and understanding what it means to be in this kind of elite competition,” Siemens Foundation CEO David Etzwiler told Education Week. “There’s no doubt, it just doesn’t work without high school teachers being equally passionate about turning kids on to STEM and connecting them to real-world issues.”

It should come as no surprise that Andrew attends the science, math, and computer science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School where students take accelerated science courses ranging from quantum physics to thermodynamics to artificial intelligence.

Every senior completes a research project to enter into another competition called the Science Talent Search. The public high school just outside of Washington has graduated more competition semifinalists (201) and more finalists (36) than any other high school. The school performs well in the Siemens Competition as well, with 15 regional winners and four national winners so far.

Andrew said his school’s focus on research led him to enter the Siemens Competition, which he first heard about when he was a freshman and had the opportunity to see seniors present their research projects. “Even when I was just a freshman, I knew these upper classmen were doing really exciting, complicated projects,” he said. Andrew will present his research findings to freshmen next semester.

With such a strong science curriculum, Andrew said he had no trouble getting the support he needed at school to perfect his research project. In fact, the school offers a course on how to conduct research and write a research paper. The teacher of that course, Andrew said, guided him toward the best research databases, showed him how to structure the paper, and made sure his findings come across clear to the reader.

In preparation for his 12-minute presentation, Andrew said he practiced twice a day in the two weeks before the competition. He did the presentation for friends in the lunchroom and for groups of teachers at his school. “I tend to talk really fast, so they suggested I slow down,” Andrew said. “That was the biggest suggestion.”

To prepare for the Q&A part of the competition, teachers and fellow students suggested possible questions the judges might ask. In the end, Andrew said he had a list of 50 questions, complete with prepared answers, that he memorized before the competition.

Half Hollow Hills, where the two-school team winners attend high school, also boasts a strong science curriculum where more than 50 percent of students take four years of lab science, more than twice the New York state average, according to the school’s website. Half Hollow Hills also employs an academic research director, Michael Lake, who supports the students throughout the competition.

After the New York team thanked their mentor professor, their parents, and their school district, teammate Arooba added: “To our amazing research director, Dr. Lake, who took time out of his own personal life to aid us throughout this entire process.”

Photo: Andrew Komo, a senior at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., won the $100,000 individual prize in the Siemens Competition in math, science, and technology. (Siemens Foundation)

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.