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

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    Launching careers? Greg (l.)and Will Kennedy say competition builds interest in the sciences.
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    In Atlanta: The International Science and Engineering Fair is putting on its largest-ever event, drawing entries from 51 countries. More than 1,200 projects have been vying for honors.
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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:

•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."

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•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.

"The kind of competitiveness that plays into [events like ISEF] has to in a few years take care of the bigger issue, global competition," says Skip Fennell, an education professor at McDaniel College in Westminster, Md. "One level of competition will hopefully infuse the other."

The US has spent $600 million since 2002 through the National Science Foundation on 52 national projects that attempt to reform the way science and math are taught at the elementary and secondary level. Some of that money has gone to seed local science bowls and math bees, fueling what appears to be a growing interest among kids and parents in math and science smackdowns.

Expanding its competition to include 11-year-olds, the Alabama-born MathCounts competition, which has been featured on ESPN, crowned its first sixth-grade winner on May 9, Darryl Wu of Bellevue, Wash.

The FIRST Robotics Competition, founded by Dean Kamen, the inventor of the Segway, reached a record 37,000 high school students in 41 regional competitions this year, with the final showdown held at the Georgia Dome here in Atlanta in mid-April. The Robowranglers of Greenville, Texas; the ThunderChickens from Sterling Heights, Mich.; and Simbotics of St. Catherine's, Ontario, won top honors for building robots able to complete an obstacle course.

In Birmingham, Ala., the six-year-old National Math Bee, open to elementary school students, has grown from a 114 competitors to more than 15,000 in the past five years. An Internet competition with the final competition held in April of each year in Birmingham, the bee could reach half a million competitors by 2010, its founder predicts.

And while ISEF is considered the grandpa of science fairs, it held its largest-ever event this year, drawing entries from 51 countries. Cities like Atlanta lobby Olympics-style for the honor of hosting the event.

More science students still needed

But even as nerds and geeks – witness TV's "Beauty and the Geek" – have risen in stature on America's cultural cool-meter, that cachet doesn't always add up to inspire students to explore the sciences. Too few students from urban minority districts and rural areas are enticed by the exploratory aspects of the heavy sciences. Competitive math and science events raise interest, but it's not enough, experts say.

"In many ways, science fairs and math competitions amplify to the self-selected that they've made the right choice, but it doesn't bring in that other 20 percent that we need," says Dr. Chappell in Nashville. "We're trying to push them into math and science, but we haven't pulled them into math and science."

If there's such a thing as competitive calculator mashing, Sarah Lee Sellers would get the medal. A high school junior from Hedgesville, W.Va., Sarah spent 2,000 hours – and burned out two calculators – creating a handmade 111 by 111 prime magic square out of only Eisenstein prime numbers. (If you must ask, a magic square's columns all add up to the same number, while an Eisenstein prime is any number where 3n-1 equals a prime.) She even managed to sneak a cryptic message – "Love" – in the top center.

A testament to a rigorous mind, Sarah's accomplishment – whether it medals or not at ISEF – has already sparked interest in math among classmates back in Hedgesville, she says. And when a gaggle of local elementary school students gathers around her booth, she explains sweetly, holding up her giant magic square: "You can do anything you want to if you put your mind to it."

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