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'Hell Week' for U.S. Teen Scientists

Some of the best and brightest U.S. high school students spend summers preparing to tackle science's biggest challenges

Last week was "Hell Week" for 14-year-old high school junior Sujay Tyle. "I've gotten 10 hours of sleep over the last 100," he says.

Tyle is studying biophysics at the Research Science Institute, a summer program at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, where 80 talented high schoolers do cutting-edge research with top scientists in the Boston (Mass.) area. In the last week of the program, the students work nonstop to write comprehensive research reports that cap off the research they have done over the previous five weeks.

Tyle and his peers offer a glimpse into the future of science in America. They're the people who will succeed or fail in launching successors to Google (GOOG), Microsoft (MSFT), Amgen (AMGN), and Genetech (DNA). Although fears are widespread that science education in the U.S. is far behind that of China and India, Tyle and his friends are doing their best to prove that belief wrong. Tyle, who attends Pittsford Mendon High School in Pittsford, N.Y., has been researching how strands of DNA interact with each other. His camp mentor is Mara Prentiss, a Harvard University physics professor.

Training for Science Fairs

Tyle's real passion, though, is alternative energy. He has been working on an alternative energy project with Professor J.H. David Wu at the University of Rochester since he was nine, and he has created a new method for directly converting cellulose into ethanol, using a gene extracted from the bacterium Clostridium thermocellum.

"My first-year project was at a basic level," says Tyle, "but as the years went on, it got a lot more complex."

These camps act as something of a training ground for young scientists, preparing them for careers in the field and, more immediately, for science competitions. There are three major science-research competitions in the U.S., each drawing about 1,500 students. Two—the Intel Science Talent Search and the Siemens Competition—award $100,000 top prizes but are open only to high school seniors in the U.S. The third, the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair, awards three $50,000 grand prizes and is open to the winners of approximately 550 affiliated regional science fairs. The most serious young researchers enter all three.

Last year, Tyle won second prize and $1,500 in the Energy & Transportation category at Intel's (INTC) International Science & Engineering Fair, commonly called ISEF.

Remarkable Sophistication

In many ways, he's typical of top American science students today. They are a relatively small and close-knit community that participates in competitions involving topics far beyond anything imaginable in the ordinary high school classroom. Tyle says he feels a much closer connection with his fellow young scientists than with his high school classmates. "They're some of my best friends," Tyle says. "These are people I'll see through the rest of my life."

Andrew Yeager, a professor at the University of Arizona College of Medicine, has been judging the ISEF for nine years and the Intel Science Talent Search for more than 20. "The level of sophistication in these projects is in many cases beyond the level of graduate school and doctoral research," Yeager says.

So why the furor over the state of math and science studies in the U.S.? In 2005, the National Academy of Sciences reported that U.S. students were near the bottom in a slew of science education metrics and competitions. Among other things, the report cited evidence that only one-third of fourth and eighth graders were "proficient" in math.

How Incompetent Are Americans?

Vivek Wadhwa, an expert in the field who holds positions at both Harvard and Duke universities and is a columnist, thinks the issue is overblown. He says the U.S. has extremely strong science education programs, but the programs aren't recognized and marketed effectively. "Science competition winners are national heroes in India and China," he says. "You don't even hear about the winners here." Wadhwa says there should be a national public relations campaign to improve the image of math and science.

But other experts caution against underplaying the real problems. Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation, says that science fairs and camps help education in the U.S., but that proficiency levels among American students are still worrisome. "We're not yet seeing anything like a comforting turnaround that tells us we're close," she says.

Hawkins says competitions and studies outside the classroom help youngsters gain a deeper appreciation for science. They encounter professionals in the field and learn to take on the most challenging issues. "There's the understanding that science is about far more than just memorizing the periodic table," she says.

Intellectual "Roller-Coaster"

Tyle and his colleagues certainly agree. Rohit Thummalapalli, a participant in a University of Florida research program,who attends American Heritage School in Plantation, Fla., has been doing computer modeling of elephant populations in South Africa's Kruger National Park. He said the research has forced him to stretch his horizons: "There's not that much you can learn about [this kind of research] in the classroom." To present his work, Thummalapalli has been relying on his mentor at the University of Florida and other scientists he met when he traveled to Africa.

"RSI is really intense, because I've never been in an environment where everyone is so qualified," Tyle says. "We have an ISEF winner and some [Intel Science Talent Search] finalists and Siemens finalists."

Tyle agrees that it has been invigorating, even with his recent lack of sleep. "It has been a roller-coaster ride, but it's something I'm really proud of," he says.

The challenges won't stop when summer ends. The three major science competitions kick off in the fall. And next summer, Tyle hopes to work with Al Gore on the Climate Project, a nonprofit the former Vice-President set up to raise awareness of climate issues.

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