Monday, March 19, 2007

Intel Announces Talent Search Winners

The annual Intel Science Talent Search is always a great showcase of young researchers. The awards were announced last week, and you can read about them here.

The kids are amazing. A few interesting tidbits. First, former Harvard President Larry Summers will be pleased to learn that the top 40 places were occupied by an equal number of boys and girls. The finalists were quite geographically diverse -- for instance, there were kids from North Dakota and Oklahoma.

Of course, the bulk came from high-income, highly-competitive regions like suburban New Jersey, Westchester and Long Island. These regions start with certain advantages -- such as having a concentration of universities and college-educated parents. But after years of following science research competitions such as Intel and the Davidson Fellowships, I've developed a few thoughts on how schools choose to make themselves and their students competitive in national competitions. There are a few steps almost any reasonably competent school could follow.

First, let kids get actual lab experience as part of their school curriculum. Five day a week classes with bells ringing every 50 minutes are not good for this sort of thing. Block schedules are good for concentration in general, and they're particularly crucial in the sciences.

Second, take your AP program seriously. Invest in hiring teachers or training ones you have to become AP instructors. Then make it "normal" for the brightest kids to take AP Chemistry, Biology, Physics and Calculus, preferably by the end of their junior years of high school. Hopefully the National Math and Science Initiative (see the post below) will start making such training more lucrative for good teachers.

Third, partner with a local university or commercial research lab. Obviously, some schools have a natural advantage here; if a huge chunk of parents work at a local lab, then it will be easy to establish ties. But most metropolitan areas have at least one advanced-degree granting institution in their midst. I am continually amazed how few schools and universities take advantage of that fact. My first high school was located all of 2 miles from Notre Dame, which is a major research university. It could have been on the other side of the moon for all anyone cared to bring the two together. Bring in professors and researchers to talk about their work, and bring kids over for a field trip to check out the labs.

Then, fourth (and this is key) -- help bright, ambitious high school juniors who express interest in this sort of thing match up with research mentors for the summer between their junior and senior years. The research mentors will help the kids figure out which problems are best to investigate (ie, most likely to offer some results during the summer and be deemed "interesting" to the outside world). Few high school kids -- even winners of Intel and other competitions -- know enough about the scope of research that's been done in a field to know which little area they should investigate. Professors do. So make no mistake. This method is how most of them get the titles of their projects. Why shouldn't they? This is how grad students often come up with their thesis topics, too.

Schools can act as matchmakers between researchers who want to mentor kids (and maybe need free help in the lab) and kids who'd like to take a shot at the big research competitions. Schools with block schedules could continue sending their young researchers over to universities or commercial labs during the kids' senior years.

With Intel, Davidson, and other competitions, there are always a few kids who spent weeks knocking on researchers' doors on their own, asking to be allowed to work in the labs, doing the work only on Saturdays and afternoons because their own schools couldn't care less. We should be doubly amazed by the results these young science talents come up with. (And we should be wary of their schools' willingness to then tout these students as examples of how good the schools are!)

But most winners have help from schools or communities or parents who facilitate these big projects. There's nothing wrong with that. What is valued in a community usually gets done, and success breeds success. When I did MathCounts in middle school, one particular school had won Indiana pretty much every year for the previous decade. Not surprisingly, by the 10th win, almost all the brightest students in the school were taking tests to see who would make the team, the coach was recruiting kids in elementary school, practices were scheduled regularly and taken seriously, and the kids showed up confident that there would not be a single question on the exam that they wouldn't be familiar with. No wonder they won!

Schools can do the same thing to produce Intel winners. Too bad most don't care enough to do so.

No comments: