Education correspondent John Merrow begins a series on high school science students competing in high-stakes science fairs.
JOHN MERROW: For young scientists, this is the super bowl, the world cup, the Olympics all rolled into one. It's the Intel International Science and Engineering fair, once known as the Westinghouse, also known as ICEF. ICEF is the world's largest pre-college science fair where the top prize is a $50,000 college scholarship. In all, more than $3 million in scholarships and prizes will be awarded to high school students. About one million students from all around the world have spent months and months working on research projects for the competition. Let's meet some of these young scientists.
MARISA COHEN, Townsend Harris High School, NY: When I was in first grade, second grade, I was already entering science competitions, like growing rock crystals or whatever it was. But I mean that was the beginning.
SAMUEL JOHN, Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, NY: I remember in second grade we each like we got a box of crayfish and we used to pick one there. There were two people with the fish and you picked a crayfish, put a marker on it indicating it was yours. You watched it's eating habits and which one was dominant. That's what we were doing, seeing which was dominant, which one was stronger.
CHRIS LANE, Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, NY: I participated in a science fair in sixth grade and got to work with chemicals and plants. I really enjoyed using the chemicals and so I pursued any kind of science class could I take.
AKSHTA KALLA, Townsend Harris High School, NY: I just loved biology for some reason, just learning about the human body and, you know, all the other aspects, and the diseases and things like that.
OMAR GHANI, Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, NY: I remember studying about dinosaurs and dinosaur bones and some projects we used to do like the little poster boards like making fake dinosaur bones.
RIO MAY DEL ROSARIO, Townsend Harris High School, NY: Probably when I was younger flipping through the channels on television, seeing maybe an operation show where you saw the brain and they were doing an operation and I guess that's how I became interested in it.
LINDA TO, Townsend Harris High School, NY: In class my teacher talked about atoms how everything was made of atoms yet just seemed mind boggling like how can I be made of the same things that plastic is made of. That to me was just like unfathomable.
JOHN MERROW: These students are fortunate to go to public high schools that provide a rich and supportive environment in science. Townsend Harris High School enrolls 1100 students; it's on the campus of queen's college about ten miles from downtown Manhattan. The school offers advanced placement classes in chemistry and physics as well as a research class for independent study. This class is open to all interested students and contrary to national trends, it attracts as many girls as boys. Plainview Old Bethpage high school is 31 miles from Manhattan; it's a comprehensive high school with 1400 students. Like Townsend Harris, the class opens to anyone interested. It, too, enrolls boys and girls in roughly equal numbers. The science research classes are not traditional classes like chemistry or biology, but independent study classes, which are open to any student who expresses an interest in science. Students who take the class must develop their own research projects. Melanie Kreiger directs the program at Plainview-Old Bethpage.
MELANIE KRIEGER, Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, NY: It's a rehearsal for the real world, because most of the kids who really get into the science competitions and science projects then go on to become scientists. And some kids truthfully do all this science and they'll go off and they'll be politicians or lawyers or they'll be economists but they've learned some lessons, very valuable. Ask, say I don't know, get help. If you make a mistake or it doesn't work, that's okay. Life goes on. Let's move ahead.
JOHN MERROW: The scientific method-- trial and error-- is what the projects have in common. The subjects run the gamut.
SAMUEL JOHN, Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, NY: We're trying to get rid of carpenter ants. They're pests that shelter themselves in wood. We're doing this by biological control so we don't use pesticides, which is better for the environment. And so the biological control we use is nematodes, parasitic worms that go into the ant and slowly get into their digestive system and kills them.
MANDEEP VIRDI, Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, NY: We're trying to combine cancer drugs to try to make a new cancer drug that possibly would be better and hopefully try to help in the research that's been that's being done currently.
JOHN MERROW: So wait a minute, you're 16 years old and you're working on cancer drugs?
MANDEEP VIRDI: Yeah.
JOHN MERROW: How cool is that?
VITO DI LENNA, Townsend Harris High School, NY: Cow bacteria. I work with cow bacteria. Cows produce milk and milk is pretty much the most important product to South American farmers. So if a cow has, let's say an infection, with the type of bacteria that I'm studying, others are infected with the bacteria and the milk they produce can't be used, or can't be used at all, so then once we know that there's an outbreak, then that has to be treated with some sort of medicine or antibiotic.
YULEE JUN, Townsend Harris High School, NY: My science project is about focusing on the structures of blood vessels, different type of blood vessels and different types of blood vessels have different structures and different structures have different effects on the buildup of cholesterol. That buildup of cholesterol leads to arteriosclerosis and then what happens, it could cause stroke. If it's detrimental, people could die.
ALAN SALAS, Plainview-Old Bethpage High School, NY: I'm studying lines of fruit flies that have deficiency in their second chromosome and for some of them, it causes them to die very early once they reach adulthood, they begin to die or deteriorate very rapidly. Other ones, they have a deficiency in their muscles so once they reach adulthood, about two weeks after they're born, they begin to deteriorate because of a potential lack of protein. I'm trying to find out the gene causing this lack of the protein.
MARISA COHEN: The title of my project is the Effect of Drugs on Macrophage - and Macrophages are cells in the immune system which surround and engulf bacteria which help us fight foreign invaders such as bacteria and other diseases. And the role of my project was to test the effects the different concentrations of drugs on the Macrophages' capability of taking the bacteria. Basically I'm just showing the adverse effects drugs on on the immune system and how important it is for us to stay away from them.
JOHN MERROW: After deciding on research projects students from both schools must find the scientists and doctors willing to serve as mentors. Young scientists spent their summers working at labs and hospitals.
HAROLD METCALF, State University of New York, Stoneybrook: What I find is that students who are lively and ask questions very often are the very best ones because they're the ones who are going to have the gumption to start a research project and follow it through and be curious about what they're doing.
JOHN MERROW: Harold Metcalf is serving as a mentor for Stacey, a junior at Plainview Old Bethpage High School.
HAROLD METCALF: Hold them in front of your face.
HAROLD METCALF: She is going to come in here and fumble around the first couple of weeks and not know what to do. And then sooner or later we will she'll know what her project is and start working on it. Bet then will come that magic time when it's going to work tonight and she stays all night. And it doesn't work and she comes back tomorrow night -- and that magic time when the student spends 60 or 70 hours in a lab continuously for no reason except they want this to work and they know it's ready and then the great excitement when it does.
JOHN MERROW: Mentors hike Harold Metcalf supervise and give advice, but students do the research independently. The next steps, writing up the research findings and preparing oral presentations. It's total immersion into the world of science.
JOHN MERROW: I think most people think of science as you have to memorize periodic table and formulas-
SAMUEL JOHN: That's not what science is. Science is hands-on stuff. Most of the science is hands-on. I mean you learn it, but you have to apply it and the allying part is where the fun comes in.
TEACHER: You're not going to have a true experiment, right because we have chemical reactions going on.
JOHN MERROW: But many American students do not experience hands-on science. In fact, about 30% of high school science classes are taught by men and women who have not studied what they're teaching. The National Science Foundation just committed $100 million to attract more people into science teaching and to improve science education into elementary schools.
AKSHTA KALLA: It's so big. There's so much to know, there is so many things to see and learn. It's like a journey. I mean for me, that's a lot of-- it's an adventure for me. So when I'm going through this process, it's like, okay, one adventure after another. One experiment is one small adventure and these adventures keep going. And they get bigger and bigger as you go along.
OMAR GHANI: It's just like it's something you can always look to, to understand.
JOHN MERROW: I don't understand that.
OMAR GHANI: I can always go to science and understand something that's there and given to me. It gives like a sense of almost comfort of understanding things in the world, like when things are mixed up.
JOHN MERROW: Can you give me an example?
OMAR GHANI: Like now with the World Trade Center. I can always look to science to understand certain things, but you'll never be able to understand what was going through people's heads when it was happening.
JOHN MERROW: The ICEF is one of many science competitions. Students enter in local, state and regional science competitions sponsored by Intel, Siemen's, Dupont, NASA and others. That means more chances to win, although winning does not seem to be at the top of these kids' priorities.
VITO DI JENNA: I always think to myself, why am I doing this? Why am I here? Winning would be nice, but then I realize, I just sit back and realize everything I've learned and that's more important than actually winning itself.
RIO MAY DEL ROSARIO: I would be jumping up and down, of course. I mean everyone loves to win. But in a sense, it can't consume you. I can't be your reason to do a project. It can't be what you live for.
LINDA TO: If I won? Hopefully I would be accepted to MIT.
JOHN MERROW: These young scientists don't seem to be motivated by money, but they do want to succeed. Right now they're rushing to complete their projects, but they can't relax once the entries are in the mail because they have to begin preparing for round two: Explaining and defending their research before an audience of scientists. Some of them may not make round two, but each one has to be ready.