Camped out in folding chairs in the gloom of MIT's Johnson Athletic Center in early May, the 300-odd finalists in this year's Massachusetts State Science Fair were a less-than-perky bunch by the sixth hour of judging. The top finishers of schoolwide and regional science fairs were hungry, tired, and withdrawn.
"We've been here since 6:30 a.m.," said an unhopeful Ryan Donovan, who sat slumped in a folding chair next to his miniature wind turbine, its blades spinning intermittently. "I'm beginning to wonder if this will ever end."
Delirium had set in among some of the rookies. They were fading fast. Some were fighting to finish their calculus homework between meeting judges, others were limp, listening to personal CD players, or using their agar-plated bacteria samples as pillows for a short nap.
But not everyone dozed. Safa Alzaim, a junior at Braintree High School, jumped at the chance to practice her presentation before meeting her next judge. "So you see, using Poiseuille's Law, I was able to indirectly measure the flow of air through the airway using these peak-flow meters," she concluded confidently, explaining later that her project on the respiratory capacity of high school athletes was inspired by her sister's asthma.
If Safa was practiced, Herbert Hedberg, a junior at North Attleboro High School, was polished. A small crowd of students and judges had been milling around his exhibit, an 8-foot-tall presentation board that dwarfed the others in the immediate vicinity.
Throughout his explanation of the experiments for "Telomerase unTRAPed," it became clear that Herbert was in a league of his own. His project involved redesigning a method for detecting the activity of telomerase, an enzyme known to be overactive in cancer cells. "It would be great to get a patent.... It's so much more efficient and reliable than the current assay [biological procedure]." A patent - just what every high school junior needs.
There was an astounding range of projects - everything from cute comparisons of the effectiveness of various laundry detergents to a project on peanut-color preference in squirrels and a demonstration of the antifungal properties of cranberries.
"With some of the kids, you wonder how they got here," says Dr. Elliot Lach, a judge at this year's fair and an MIT alumnus. "With the others, you just try to imagine to what great heights they're going."
If the competition at the state level was exhausting for these kids, imagine how intense things are in Cleveland this week at the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). A far cry from the blue ribbon affairs that pop up in middle-school gymnasiums in early spring, the Intel ISEF is the grandaddy of all science fairs - the Science Olympics, if you will - and annually gathers the best and the brainiest among high school-aged kids from more than 40 countries.
This year, more than 1,200 students will compete individually or in teams in 14 different categories representing the sciences from botany to physics to zoology. And they're not competing for recognition alone.
The Intel Corporation, which took over sponsorship of the event in 1996, will award an estimated $3 million in scholarships, tuition grants, scientific equipment, and field trips to winners at this year's competition. The top three finalists are awarded the Intel Young Scientist Scholarship of $50,000, in addition to a high- performance computer and a trip to the Nobel Prize ceremonies in Stockholm.
The stakes can be huge, but it wasn't always this way. "Back when I was in high school, there was no money to be won, really," says Paul Lubin, a judge and MIT alumnus at the Massachusetts State Fair.
"In my day, the science fair was a tournament for geeks, mainly guys, who wanted to showcase their brains. We did it for the fun of it, the competition. These days, you can bring home a check to cover your college tuition."
The times have changed, not to mention the quality of science projects. Judges at elite competitions such as the Intel ISEF and the Siemens Westinghouse Competition in Math, Science, and Technology often review PhD-quality work that has been packaged into scientific abstracts.
"Our judges go in thinking they're experts in their field and soon find themselves engaged in an enlightening scientific discourse with a pair of 17-year-olds," says Albert Hoser, chairman of the Siemens Foundation.
This year marks Lauren Hansen's third trip to the Intel ISEF as a finalist. Her project deals with the manufacture of new conductive materials by means of hybridizing them with small metal-fiber strands, or nanostrands.
"Basically, I'm working on a new way of making lightweight conductives," Lauren says. This new method could improve lightning-strike and electromagnetic shielding in aircraft.
Lauren has also been looking into how this technology might lend itself to other areas.
"Nanostrands can be used to make upholstery, paints, resins, plastics ... and other things conductive," she explains. "We're also looking at using them to make a flexible computer circuit and developing an artificial skin using the nanostrands to make, well, I guess you would call them 'nerves.' "
How did a 17-year-old junior at Wasatch High School in Weber City, Utah, come up with this project idea? "Well, my dad has this laboratory near our house," Lauren says.
Her father, George Hansen, has certainly played a role in the development of Lauren's project.
"My partner and I had taken some old research off the shelf that recently suggested new potential - the idea of vapor processing these tiny metal strands and making hybrid composites," says Mr. Hansen, a materials engineer. "We simply cut Lauren off a manageable piece of the pie and gave her free rein over the lab. The research she has done has been all her own original research. In fact, she's probably contributing more to our project than we are to hers."
It may seem that Lauren's background and mentoring from her father gains her an unfair advantage. But at the more elite competitions, there's been a trend toward inviting and encouraging entrants to work with professionals.
Mr. Hoser of the Siemens Foundation notes that the quality of projects has increased, and points to research- internship programs and other collaborations as factors.
"These days, nothing notable is being done by a lone genius," says Hoser, who introduced the project category to the competition in 1991. "No one is that perfect."
Steven Byrnes, this year's Siemens individual winner from Roxbury Latin School in Boston, might take exception. A largely self-taught math and physics whiz (in 2002, Steven became the first student to win both the US Math Olympiad and the US Physics Olympiad), Steven has been ahead of his classmates since he discovered algebra in sixth grade.
But even Steven sings the praises of collaboration with his mentor Edward Early, a graduate student Steven met last year at MIT's Research Summer Institute program: "He was the one who introduced me to this subset of poset games. That was the jumping off point."
For his project, he analyzed a class of two-player paper-and-pencil games called poset games. In doing so he developed and proved a new theorem that mathematicians had been wrestling with for more than 20 years. Steven's Poset Periodicity Theorem will likely find future applications in areas of artificial intelligence, error-correcting codes, and computer networks.
This year's Siemens Grand Prize team winners, Juliet Girard and Roshan Prabhu, will divide the $100,000 grand prize for their project, in which they identified the gene in rice that controls its flowering time - a discovery with major applications to solving the world's hunger problem.
Juliet, a senior at William Dickinson High School in Jersey City, N.J., is the first African-American to win the prestigious competition. One of nine children, most of whom were home-schooled and are not into science, Juliet credits TV's Mr. Wizard and Bill Nye the Science Guy as early inspirations. But it was a NASA-sponsored internship that landed her at Cornell to work on their rice genome project with Roshan.
If Lauren and Juliet are any indication, gone are the days of male domination at science fairs. "It used to be all boys, upper class, a lot of Asian students, and the best projects would come from the best schools," says Don Foster, a volunteer science-fair judge and professor of technical writing. "There's still plenty of that, but there are quite a few more young ladies getting involved and doing hard, serious science."
Beyond that, the "geek" stigma seems to be waning in recent years as well.
"Certainly in the last few years we're finding that the top entrants didn't only ace their SATs, but they're often talented in many other areas as well - sports, music, whatever," Foster says. "The [students] seem more well-rounded these days."