An event that could be called the Super Bowl of science fairs was held here last week, and I am pleased to report that Washington area students fared exceptionally well in the annual competition.
No fewer than 10 awards went to young scholars from in and around the nation's capital in the 36th International Science and Engineering Fair.
It would be a joy to tell precisely what these awards were granted for, but in all honesty, these teen-aged achievers extraordinaire employ a language in which I am hardly conversant. You could say I was blinded by their science projects.
After all, what would you say to Daniel Kraft, 17, of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, who won first place in the microbiology category for his project, "Effects of a Monoclonal Anti-1gE Receptor on Histamine Release"?
Could you intelligently discuss with Tom Phillips, 15, of Oakton High School in Vienna, his first-place-winning entry in the earth and space science category "Condensation Nucleation: Study of pH Factors Affecting Snow Crystal Formation"?
It quickly became clear that in congratulating these youngsters on the brilliance of their projects I'd be safer to settle for a simple "nice job, fellas."
"It's not difficult," said LaVencia Sugars, 17, of H.D. Woodson High in the District, who submitted a project in biochemistry: "Nephrotoxicity of Aminoglycosides."
"When I take on a task, I'm not satisfied until it's completed or done well."
Pedro DeJesus, 17, of the District's Woodrow Wilson High, weighed in with a chemistry project titled "Fuel Cells: Electrochemical Studies of Coated Platinum." He said he became interested in fuel cells after reading a magazine on the subject three years ago.
You'd think a kid that reads that kind of stuff would be a little different, but it turns out that DeJesus is a lot like most American kids, just luckier perhaps. Last July he and two friends went playing on rocks in the Potomac River -- and only he returned alive. His science adviser, Gladys Morgan, said, "The Lord must have had something in mind for Pedro."
His project, DeJesus said, came about because "I wanted to know how to get more power from hydrogen since it is so abundant and cheap."
There were 38 Washington area students represented at the science fair, which included more than 618 students from the United States and 10 foreign countries. Their projects were impressive, including robots, advances in genetic engineering and improved teaching methods.
However, the science fair itself presented a skewed picture of the state of science and math education in the United States, according to many science advisers attending. "These are the best and the brightest students in America, so you'd expect them to do well," said Morgan, who advised Sugars and DeJesus on their projects. "But overall, we are way behind."
Other sponsors of the science fair claim that too many junior high school students lose interest in science and math because it is often taught by physical education instructors or substitute teachers, and that there is a severe shortage of lab resources in many high schools.
Nevertheless, the Washington area managed to hold its own in the galaxy of scientific superstars gathered at this prestigious event. Other winners were: Michael Fitzgerald, 18, of T.C. Williams High, Alexandria; Wolf-Dietrich Hardt, 16, Loudoun Valley High, Purcellville; Kenneth T. Bellian, 18, Hayfield Secondary School, Alexandria; Michael Davis, 16, Fort Hunt High, Alexandria; Mark Swain, 18, Stonewall Jackson High, Manassas; Amie Rae Swecker, 18, Heritage High, Lynchburg, Va.; Eric Bever, Ridgewood High, Ridgewood, W.Va., and Sandip Biswal, 17, Randallstown High, Randallstown, Md.