The expression on the face of the student government president, the scholar with the 4.3 grade-point average and the No. 2 class ranking, could safely be described as confused.
Just after 9:20 a.m. yesterday, after she had finished an Advanced Placement calculus test, she walked into Sue Gray's third-period AP biology class at Westlake High School in Charles County and saw her parents.
Winner Vi Le is celebrated at her Charles County school by Johnson Controls' Stephanie D. Bridgeforth.
(James A. Parcell -- The Washington Post)
Then she saw the principal, and two assistant superintendents, and some executive types in business suits, and photographers with cameras and reporters with notebooks and a big bouquet of red roses and balloons that said "congratulations."
"What's going on?" asked Thuy Le, 18, a rather slight young woman wearing a white tank top and slacks, and chewing gum. "What is this?" she asked, looking slightly embarrassed.
Le, who goes by Vi (pronounced "Vee"), soon found out that she was one of three students in North America chosen out of 2,500 applicants to be a champion of the Igniting Creative Energy Challenge, a contest administered by the National Energy Foundation that asked students to come up with interesting ways to conserve natural resources and save energy. They could turn in songs, essays, science projects, pretty much anything. The winners would get a week-long trip for two to Hawaii courtesy of corporate sponsor Johnson Controls Inc., an energy management business based in Milwaukee.
For her project, Le, being a child of the congested suburbs of the Washington area, chose to do a photo essay about transportation. She went to the District, where her mother works for the Internal Revenue Service, and took photographs of people waiting for the subway. She took pictures of pedestrians and bicycles, buses and hybrid cars. Her project's elegance was in its simplicity.
"There are ways to save energy that are easy," Le said.
The contest, in its fourth year, was judged by a nine-member panel of educators, company officials and an official of the U.S. Department of Energy.
The other winners were a fifth-grader from Las Vegas, who turned in a giant matchbook with each match showing a leader in the energy world and ways to save energy; and a seventh-grader from El Campo, Tex., who wrote her own newspaper with articles about global energy challenges. Also winning was a teacher from Bethlehem, Pa., whose students submitted the most high-quality entries.
In addition to visiting the volcanoes and tropical forests of Hawaii, the winners get to go to not-quite-as-exotic Washington for the two-day Energy Efficiency Forum in June to present their projects.
One judge, Kenneth G. Sheinkopf, a spokesman for the Florida Solar Energy Center, said he "was overwhelmed by [Le's] photo essay."
"If this is what students are capable of doing, you feel pretty good about where life is going. It sounds kind of hokey, I know, but it was just beautiful," he said.
Truth be told, Le had kind of forgotten about the contest and wasn't even all that thrilled about applying. Teacher Sue Gray had asked her to enter. And because Le liked photography, she decided to give it a shot.
"I vividly remember going to the post office and thinking, 'Oh, my God, I've got to spend money on something I'm not going to win,' " Le said.
But this is a student not unfamiliar with success. She is a two-time all-state soccer player, an "academic superstar," in the words of Westlake Principal L.C. Martin, and was voted most likely to succeed. She's deciding between Columbia University and the University of California at Berkeley.
"She's a beast at everything she does," said classmate Buck Smith, 18.
Le, who by this time was wearing a lei around her neck, took hugs from her classmates while her father videotaped the scene. Cookies and refreshments were available, and it looked as if biology class might be a wash. But order prevailed. The principal said, "The balloons are yours, Vi, but you can't carry them around." It was, after all, school.