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Can competitions raise 'cool' factor of math, science?

Math bees and science smackdowns for teen brainiacs are on the rise, along with efforts to fuel interest in those fields.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / May 17, 2008

Launching careers? Greg (l.)and Will Kennedy say competition builds interest in the sciences.

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This is what high school seniors Will and Greg Kennedy, tow-headed researchers from Jacksonville, Fla., are up against this week as they compete for medals at the Super Bowl of science:

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•The kid who built a bicycle – using only wooden parts.

•The teen who created a new kind of computer search program based on an idea called "ant colony optimization."

•The New Mexico boy who built a two-inch-wide small-well pump used to draw drinking water from deep test wells.

How well the Kennedy twins' research on cancer drug interactions ranks against these and 1,244 other projects entered in this year's International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) – 20 percent of which already have patents pending – isn't as important, the boys say, as their peers paying attention to their work.

"Just getting to this point is like winning something big," says Will, who partnered with his brother and the Mayo Clinic for their research. "Everybody feels like a celebrity here."

At a time when the US is desperate to halt its slide in the world's math and science rankings, ISEF is one of a growing number of über-competitive math bowls and science fairs that are putting the imprimatur of cool back into physics, trigonometry, and hydraulics. Whether such science project showdowns can truly inspire America's far-flung talent pools to learn what US Education Secretary Margaret Spellings calls "pocket protector skills," however, still remains to be seen.

"I think we have a generation where math and science became uncool," says Dr. Jim Hamos, program director of the Math and Science Partnership Program at the National Science Foundation in Arlington, Va. "People are wondering what's the galvanizing moment [for math and science education], and competitiveness may be that galvanizer. It's one way to make science and math cool ... as opposed to abstract and minimalist."

On the wane since Apollo

At the end of the Apollo space program, the US contributed about 75 percent of technological breakthroughs to the world. That figure is now less than 25 percent, says Rick Chappell, director of the Dyer Observatory in Nashville, Tenn. What's more, 22 percent of technical and scientific jobs in the US today are held by foreign-born workers who could repatriate if opportunities arise in their home countries, warns the 2005 "Innovation and a Competitive US Economy" report issued by the Information Technology Association of America.

Indeed, the lack of a unifying national scientific mission like going to the moon is one reason why not enough US-born kids are digging harder into their math and science texts, experts say. The outsourcing of technical jobs to developing nations is another.

"We're not getting the layer below the cream," says John Clark, a former ISEF contestant and judge, whose son, James, built the small-well pump. "The fact is we've got Bill Gates 2.0 floating around here somewhere. We've just got to find him."

Indeed, here at the ISEF, the Kennedy twins are getting a taste of the new competition: The growth of the fair comes primarily from overseas, where contestants from Sweden, India, and even, for the first time, Nigeria showcase the up-and-coming brains of the global scientific community.