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JOHN MERROW: Today is a big day for these high school students. Before it’s over, they’ll find out if their months, even years of hard work have paid off. These young scientists are hoping to make it to the finals of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair called ISEF, where they’ll compete with students from all around the world for $3 million in scholarships and awards.
We’re following 20 students from two schools: Townsend Harris High in Queens, New York, and Plainview Old Bethpage High on long island as they make their way to the ISEF finals in Louisville in May. To get to finals, young scientists must compete successfully in regional competitions.
STUDENT: Are you ready?
JOHN MERROW: Some students are competing individually. Some worked together on a project and are competing as a team. In all, there are about 500 regional competitions, 400 of them in the United States. Because there is so much interest in science in the New York City area, students here have to make it through two qualifying rounds.
AKSHTA KALLA, Townsend Harris High School: Last night I was up until 3:30. Friday night I was up until about 1:00. Thursday night I was up until about 2:30. So for the past few days, I’ve just been running on a few hours of sleep.
JOHN MERROW: Just to get this far, these young scientists have followed a long road. First, they had to choose a research topic, then find a scientist or doctor who would help them. Next came a summer of lab work and research, followed by writing their papers, filling out forms…
STUDENT: Yo, guys.
JOHN MERROW:…And getting their entries in on time.
STUDENT: I studied the effect of drugs on…
JOHN MERROW: The students began practicing their oral presentations months ago for anyone who would listen: Fellow classmates.
STUDENT: Drugs that you may know of. One of them is known as…
JOHN MERROW: Younger students.
STUDENT: And also to allow for easy administration. ( Applause )
JOHN MERROW: Parents.
STUDENT: It’s easier on our parents, because no matter what we say, they’ll say it’s good.
STUDENT: As President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said…
JOHN MERROW: And their teachers and mentors.
STUDENT: A nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.
TEACHER: The opening, although a nice thing, so I’m like, “So Roosevelt, what does he have to do with anything?” That’s a beautiful quote, but you’ve got to give me something about the coal.
STUDENT: Presenting in front of our teachers, that helps because the teachers can be critical if they want to.
MELANIE KRIEGER, Teacher: One thing I think they have to remember is if somebody gives you really, really hard questions, that means you’re doing a good job.
TEACHER: How would you go from the leap of finding an area which you think is responsible and cell binding to antiviral therapy?
TEACHER: The harder the questions get and the more intense, then the more you have involved the judge, because the judge, who is an adult, is now beginning to involve you as a student into his world, and you’ve risen up to that adult world.
JOHN MERROW: Chris Lane and Lindsey Fourman, who studied the effect of using coal tailings as a mulch, soon realized that none of their practice sessions had prepared them for a tough, skeptical judge.
STUDENT: According to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, the nation that destroys its soil, destroys itself.
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH, Judge: Why did you expect this to change the ph if it’s inert?
STUDENT: We didn’t know if it would change the ph or not. We thought it might leach, like acidic particles into…
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: What kind of particles would come out of it?
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: I felt that part of my job was to teach them and to point out to them how to improve their project. Their idea was very good, but their methodology, somewhat flawed, which is… they’re high school kids, after all. I would be surprised if it was perfect.
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: Design an experiment for me that will tell me if this or this will change the ph.
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: So I thought that I could help them for next time, next year. These people were sophomores. They have a long way to go.
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: What do you need to measure ph?
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: Hydrogen. Where do you have hydrogen?
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: Right, exactly. So you’re measuring the ph. It’s not so much of the soil itself, but of the water dissolved in the soil and many other things in it.
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: Now, how can you isolate the effect of these materials alone?
JOHN MERROW: It was a teachable moment.
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: It’s a teachable moment, yeah.
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: If you want to see if this changes ph, why not just put this in water and that water and see what happens to the ph of the water?
JOHN MERROW: You shook them up, though. I mean, you said, “wait a minute.”
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: (Laughs) I taught them how to think a little bit. They had… they were suffering a little bit from showmanship, that particular group.
STUDENT: She had a lot of, like, criticisms.
STUDENT: Yeah, she had… she knows a lot of flaws in our project, but she also gave us a lot of pointers.
MIRIAM RAPHILAVICH: Their project was fundamentally good. They just have to know how to present it to a scientific audience in order to have it have value because otherwise it will go to waste.
JOHN MERROW: Sophia Bajwa and Angela Nguyen are hoping to find a cure for HIV and AIDS by analyzing the structure of proteins.
SOPHIA BAJWA, Townsend Harris High School: The pressure was all on Angela because she decided she’ll do the oral presentation, I’ll take the questions. But it’s like, I almost felt how she could be panicking but she did a pretty good job.
JOHN MERROW: More than a pretty good job apparently, because Sophia and Angela made to it the New York City finals. Mandeep Virdi’s practice sessions had given her a sense of confidence for the Long Island competition.
STUDENT: How it works is that during mitoses, it stabilizes they elongation of the microtubules.
JOHN MERROW: The judges feel as much pressure as students to do a good job.
SHELLY COHEN, Judge: As a judge, I feel very stressed because I know how hard the students work. I know how important it is for us to be able to judge them fairly only talking with them for ten minutes. And it’s a great responsibility, and I take it very seriously, and I want to contribute.
JOHN MERROW: Mandeep, whose project focused on the effects of combining anticancer drugs, survived round one and made it to the Long Island finals. So did Chris and Lindsey. Then came the finals. The odds against winning are long. Only 42 of the more than 1,500 projects in the New York City and Long Island competitions would qualify for the finals in Louisville. 11 of the 20 students we were following made it to the regional finals, and had one more opportunity to impress the judges.
BIDISHA DASGUPTA, Judge: I think a lot of them when you ask questions they’re like, “oh, maybe I did it wrong, that’s why they’re asking.” So you really try to say, you know, “you did a good job. And I was just wondering, did you think about this? Not necessarily that you did it wrong; that’s why I’m asking you.”
RIO MAY DEL ROSARIO, Townsend Harris High School: All the preparation that I did in terms of memorizing what I… like a scripted speech, wasn’t worth it, because instead they told me not to say anything that I hadn’t put on my board, to speak in my own words, so it was useless. (Laughs)
BILL HERSH, Judge: The kids are under the illusion that we’re actually studying these posters when what we’re doing is really listening to them talk about what they’re doing and then pointing at the occasional picture.
ROBERT MARRACCINO, Judge: You can see it in their eyes if they know what they’re talking about. They know how to apply their knowledge. They know what the lab is doing. They know how to extend their results and put it in a context that makes it meaningful for themselves, and that comes out.
JUDGE: I didn’t rank that high.
JUDGE: I didn’t either.
JOHN MERROW: Then the judges gather to compare scores and decide on the winners.
JUDGE: I thought that was very good. If one of our criteria is going to be sending somebody along we think will have a high probability of winning, seven would not be my guess.
JUDGE: I thought she had a really great idea, and was on her way to some really good work, but I didn’t feel like she got a lot done in the lab.
JOHN MERROW: While scores were being tabulated, judges took a few minutes to reflect on science education and ways to strengthen it.
JUDGE: The joy of science comes through the process, overcoming all the failings, and arriving at a conclusion.
JOHN MERROW: How would you make it so that more young people could experience this process?
JUDGE: More funding.
ALYCE THOMAS, Judge: We need the funding, and we need it at a lower level. We need to start with the elementary schools and then work up on to the high schools.
JOHN MERROW: If you had the money, how would you spend it?
MICHAEL SAJJ, Judge: Well, what I would do is I would create more research programs, more mentors for the students.
JUDGE: But you can throw all the funding at it if that you want. The point is, you have to have the kids who want to do it, and you have to have the teachers who can basically promote that growth.
ALYCE THOMAS: And you need more science teachers, because there are so many teachers that are teaching out of their subject area. They’re not really science teachers.
JUDGE: You’re creating a population of kids engaged in an activity beyond themselves.
JUDGE: That’s what science is. That’s what everyone takes. And so that benefits society.
SEN. JOHN EDWARDS: Then it was time to announce the winners of the Long Island competition.
SPOKESMAN: You are all the top quarter of the students in your respective categories. You have achieved a tremendous amount just getting here today. So if you do only receive a medal, please look back and see how far you’ve come rather than looking forward and seeing what you missed out on. We have five teams that are medal award winners.
JOHN MERROW: Runners-up, including Chris and Lindsey, received medals. In Mandeep’s category of chemistry, only two students would go to Louisville. One by one they were eliminated until only three finalists remained. They waited, hoping not to hear their name called.
SPOKESMAN: From Plainview Old Bethpage, Mandeep Virdi. (Cheers and applause)
MANDEEP VIRDI, Old Bethpage High School: I was one away from actually going on. This happened to me last year, so at first it’s like, “wow,” you know, “it happened again.” But then you think you still have another year, and you learn a lot from the judges, and I’m still happy with what I’ve got.
JOHN MERROW: Winners from New York City’s competition, Sophia Bajwa and Angela Nguyen, received a phone call from the head judge.
JUDGE: Hello, is this Sophia?
SOPHIA BAJWA: Yes.
JUDGE: Sophia, I have good news for you.
SOPHIA BAJWA: Hi.
JOHN MERROW: So in the end, only two of the students we’ve been following will be going on to ISEF, which for young scientists is the World Cup, the super bowl. As for the others, it’s not really the end. There are other competitions and there’s always next year. But for Sophia and Angela, it’s on to Louisville, where they’ll be competing against the best young scientists in the world.