Issue XCVI

21 OCT 2016



Super genius high school student wins second major science competition


17-year-old Eric Chen walked away with a cool $100,000 after winning the Intel Science Talent Search  for his research on influenza treatment drugs.

This isn't the first major international science competition the California native has won. Chen took the grand prize at the 2013 Google Science Fair for his work on medication to fight against all influenza viruses including pandemic strains.

Other winners from the Intel competition include 17-year-old Kevin Lee who came in second place for his mathematical model that will help lead to treatments for arrhythmia and other heart conditions.

"We at Intel celebrate the work of these brilliant young scientists as a way to inspire the next generation to follow them with even greater energy and excitement into a life of invention and discovery," executive director of the Intel Foundation Wendy Hawkins said in a press release.

"Imagine the new technologies, solutions and devices they will bring to bear on the challenges we face. The Intel Science Talent Search finalists should inspire all of us with hope for the future."

Another 17-year-old came in third place for his research in solving a wide variety of problems in computer science, bioinformatics and computational biology.

All together, $630,000 was awarded to competitors from all across the country. From new breast cancer treatments to studies on the affects technology has on the teenage brain, America's best and brightest young scientists were highlighted at the annual competition.

Intel Science Contest Is Overrated


Congratulations to the winners of the 2014 Intel Science Talent Search. But why all the hoopla? Such contests are fraught with misperceptions.

For instance, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman said that the Intel competition "identifies and honors the top math and science students in America, based on their solutions to scientific problems." This isn't the case. The contest doesn't rank talent in the same way we identify the fastest hurdlers or longest jumpers.

First of all, most top science and math students don't participate in such national contests. The commitment required is scary, and even energetic, motivated students may think their time is better spent on other pursuits. Participation in these competitions is largely a function of what school one attends. When Westinghouse ran the event, there were "Westinghouse schools," with special programs designed to encourage participation, and today some schools have turned this into an art form.

Second, the project-oriented contests such as Intel aren't measures of scientific brilliance. Yes, those who succeed are bright, extraordinarily dedicated kids. But the ideas for the centerpiece of the contest, the student's research project, often originate with the student's university mentor. The student will join a project already in progress and be given a piece to work on. During that work, the student will come up with ideas for refinements, but a focus on "their solutions" is exaggerated. Those "High School Student Finds Cure for Cancer" headlines are seriously misleading.

Martin Rocek, a university mentor for one Intel semifinalist, recounted for the New York Times how he interacted with the student. Rocek found a "not exceedingly technical" topic in math, gave the student tutorials and suggested the calculations to be done. A past winner of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair told the STEM education newsletter Metroplex Math Circle about choosing among projects offered by her university mentor.

Professor Miriam Rafailovich, who runs an organized mentoring program for high school researchers at SUNY Stony Brook, told me in an e-mail interview that the contestants "get massive coaching from the schools." There is even a how-to book, "Success With Science: The Winners' Guide to High School Research," written by winners...