Meet The Fairest Of The Fairs

Fred M. Niell III built his own cyclotron for basement experiments in particle physics. Richard Caldwell designed a new type of canard wing for planes. Sarita Maria James used neural networks to develop a "smart" speech-recognition system so helicopter pilots could bark commands instead of flipping switches. And Kendra M. Bird discovered a fungus that may become a commercial source of taxol, a cancer-fighting agent.

Top researchers at America's high-tech companies? Not yet, anyway. They're teenagers, and these were their science fair projects.

It's no secret that precocious students have gone way beyond the me-too experiments of a decade or two ago. The Westinghouse Science Talent Search awards 10 scholarships each year to seniors whose work regularly equals graduate research for originality. But Niell, Caldwell, James, and Bird--respectively from Memphis, Tenn; Corpus Cristi, Tex.; Fort Wayne, Ind., and the Blackfoot reservation near Browning, Mont.--weren't among the 40 Westinghouse finalists. They were participants in the International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF), a global competition that dwarfs the Westinghouse in size. The last round of science fairs drew more than 1.5 million entrants, compared with only 1,645 for Westinghouse. Yet the ISEF is virtually unknown among U.S. business leaders.

Alfred S. McLaren is out to change that. McLaren is president of Science Service Inc., a not-for-profit company founded in 1921 to promote science among students, including publishing Science News, a weekly magazine. Since taking the helm in 1991, McLaren has been trying to drum up more interest in the ISEF, now in its 46th year. But the former attack-sub skipper has found the going rough. "To my knowledge, no member of Congress has ever been to a fair, let alone a President or a Vice-President," McLaren says. Yet Westinghouse winners are regularly feted at the White House.

The recognition gap between the two competitions is all the more ironic because Science Service runs both of them. The Washington (D.C.) organization conceived the idea of the Science Talent Search in 1944 and has administered it ever since. Westinghouse Electric Corp. chips in $500,000 to pay the bills and underwrite $205,000 in scholarships. McLaren sees two reasons for its greater fame. First, Westinghouse does a masterful public-relations job. Second, the top Westinghouse prizes are $40,000 scholarships; the fattest ISEF awards, until recently, were $500.

McLaren is turning up the heat on company sponsors in hopes of increasing the prizes in all 16 science categories tenfold. With the help of pioneers such as Imax, Lockheed, and Phillips Petroleum, things are looking up. Intel Corp. has nearly quadrupled its support of the 1995 ISEF, to $70,000. "It's important to get more kids involved early in science and technology," says Chairman Gordon E. Moore.

"ABSOLUTELY AMAZED." What really tipped the balance, though, was the report card turned in by Intel's Eugene S. Meieran, one of nine Intel scientists honored for their outstanding performance with the title of fellow. Meieran represented Intel at the past two science fairs and was "absolutely amazed" by the students' work.

In fact, one 1993 exhibit was so impressive that Meieran persuaded Intel to hire the student, Eric B. Ford, then 15, for a six-week summer internship. Now a junior at St. Andrews Episcopal School in Jackson, Miss., Ford took second place in the Earth & Space category--plus six other awards from such sponsors as NASA and the Air Force. Total worth: $1,050. They stemmed from reading about NASA'S plan to send mobile robots to Mars and how vital it was to give the robots enough smarts to explore the treacherous Martian landscape. Ford decided to develop a navigation system using neural networks, and it became his ISEF entry.

"It was really fascinating--very advanced and technologically sound," Meieran recalls. So Intel brought Ford to California and put him to work with an engineering team that was developing a neural-network program for spotting causes of manufacturing defects in Intel's chips. Says Meieran: "Eric was a serious technical contributor to a program that involved very complicated and advanced technology."

McLaren wonders how many more budding scientists could be making contributions. "Why wait until these kids finish college?" he asks. "They're bursting with fresh new ideas now." Unfortunately, says Intel's Meieran, "most companies are much more interested in sponsoring a Little League team than in sponsoring a science fair."

The 1995 ISEF will be held on May 7-13 in Hamilton, Ont., featuring 1,200 projects--the best from 560 science fairs in the U.S. and 30 foreign countries. Some may also be honored in future Westinghouse contests, since roughly 85% of all Westinghouse winners cut their teeth at a science fair.

FUTURE STARS. Other participants will no doubt be tomorrow's entrepreneurs and scientists. The fairs that Hartley D. Peavey entered in the 1950s were the foundation of Peavey Electronics Corp., a Meridian (Miss.) manufacturer of sound equipment for rock musicians. Although he once yearned to be a rock star, Peavey's success in local fairs helped him realize he was better at building guitars than playing them. He started the business after he graduated from college in 1965, and today privately owned Peavey Electronics has 27 factories and 2,200 employees--and hundreds of millions in revenues. "Without the science fairs," Peavey wonders, "who knows where I'd be?"

Then there's Dr. Jud W. Gurney, an associate professor of radiology at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. He entered his first science fair in 1970, as a sophomore. While he got only as far as the state contest, he earned a four-year scholarship to the University of Nebraska. That helped convince his mother that science was a viable career. She had hoped he'd become a musician.

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