The computer project is called "the initiation of reductive trigger waves in a marginally stable ferroin-catalyzed Belousov-Zhabotinskii solution," and teachers say it is of college-level caliber.
But for 16-year-old Doug Abrams, it's just another part of his studies as a senior in the math and science magnet program at Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring.
Abrams is part of a new breed of computer-whiz teenagers, raised on a steady diet of microchips and megabytes since early childhood. Many of these teens are so advanced, some teachers say, that they are already tackling problems that formerly were given only to graduate students.
"Every year they get better," said Mary Ellen Verona, a teacher in Montgomery Blair's magnet program who uses material from her computer science master's program at Johns Hopkins University to teach the magnet students. "I tell people in industry what these kids are doing and they are shocked."
Abrams is one example. He began using computers in elementary school and was programming by age 11. By the time he finished his sophomore year at Blair, he had taken advanced placement computer science, a college-level course, and had designed a computer-controlled robot for an engineering class.
"What appeals to me about computers is the applications, the use of these high-powered machines to solve scientific problems we weren't able to before," he said.
His "reductive trigger waves" project does just that. It involves designing a program for a high-speed supercomputer that will simulate a chemical reaction and analyze the way it triggers other reactions. It was one of four projects that helped Montgomery Blair, along with 11 other schools, win a spot at "SuperQuest 1991," a national supercomputer competition sponsored by Cornell University, the National Science Foundation and International Business Machines Corp.
As part of SuperQuest, Abrams and three other Montgomery Blair students spent three weeks at Cornell last summer, taking classes in such subjects as "vectorization," a way of speeding up the rate at which computers solve problems, and "parallel computing," a way of getting several computers to work together to solve problems. The school also will receive an IBM computer work station, worth roughly $200,000, which students will be able to use to link up to Cornell's supercomputer.
"It wasn't like a relaxing vacation activity," Abrams said of his three weeks at Cornell.
Although the subjects they study may seem esoteric, Abrams and many of the young computer aficionados say they are not terribly different socially from other people their age. They and their teachers insist that most magnet students do not fit the "computer geek" stereotype.
"When I accepted this job, I thought the students would be really nerdy," said Lola Piper, who is in her seventh year of teaching computer science in the Montgomery Blair magnet program. "I even went to see 'Revenge of the Nerds,' thinking it would give me insight as to what was going to happen."
"But they're normal kids," she added. "They'll sit there and gossip. When the new Guns 'n' Roses album came out, that was the topic. They're typical high school kids, they're just very smart."
One reason many of these students are so advanced, some teachers say, is because they have been exposed to computers since childhood and find the machines as mundane and friendly as TV.
"A lot of these kids have had computers since they were five or six years old and have absolutely no fear of them," Verona said. "You put an adult in front of a computer, and they're worried they're going to break something."
Another reason for the computer prowess of students in Montgomery Blair's magnet program, teachers say, is the extensive attention they receive from faculty members who have computer training.
To attend Blair's magnet, students must perform extremely well on a rigorous entrance exam. Once at Blair, they attend class for an extra 45 minutes a day and take a core of advanced science and math courses, including computer programming, in their freshman and sophomore years.
Critics of magnet programs say high-achieving students such as those at Blair are a glaring exception to the rule. The critics say such students are the beneficiaries of a system that focuses its resources on a small number of talented people, while ignoring others.
"It's such a small percentage of youngsters," said James Robinson, co-chairman of the Citizen's Minority Relations Monitoring Committee, which released a report this week that said Montgomery County does a poor job of serving many minority students. "The beneficial impact of the magnet programs has been so focused and so small and relatively minor."
Statistically, the percentage of blacks entering Montgomery Blair's magnet program is considerably lower than the overall percentage of blacks in the Montgomery County school system, while the percentage of Asians is considerably higher.
Of the 99 students entering Montgomery Blair's magnet program this year, 9 percent are black, 56 percent are white, 29 percent are Asian and 5 percent are Hispanic, officials said. Of the roughly 108,000 students who attend public school in Montgomery County, 17 percent are black, 62 percent are white, 12 percent are Asian and 9 percent are Hispanic.
The county also spends more money on the magnet students. According to the Montgomery County Public Schools' Office of Management and Budget, the 400 students in Blair's magnet get 9 1/2 more teachers, three more full-time teaching assistants and one more computer systems teaching assistant than they would be getting if they were in a regular educational program.
Officials estimate that the county spends an extra $575,000 a year on the additional staff and an extra $134,000 a year on equipment and teaching materials for the Blair magnet students. The magnet program hires more teachers, they say, because its students take eight classes a day, instead of seven, and because teachers must spend extra time supervising students in their required independent projects.
Michael R. Haney, coordinator of the magnet program, said one reason fewer black students enter the magnet is because fewer take algebra in the eighth grade, a requirement for the program.
He added that the magnet's 18 teachers are required by the county to lead workshops for non-magnet students and for other teachers. The magnet program also has tried to recruit junior high school minority students through summer and weekend workshops.
"We are expected to go out and share our expertise and train teachers, we are required to do that," Haney said. "It's not a casual activity to us."