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Students triumph in US science competition

Despite strained school budgets, a group of New York state students have shown great things can still be achieved.
Last modified: 5 Dec 2012 13:51

As the US continues to address its financial problems and the so-called fiscal cliff, one of the areas targeted for reduced spending is education.

Federal cuts to upcoming education budgets could amount to nearly $5bn, according to the American Association of School Administrators. But a group of New York state high-school students has shown, despite already strained school budgets, great things can still be achieved.

I saw this first hand while attending the awards ceremony in Washington, DC, for the prestigious Siemens 2012 Competition in Math, Science and Technology.

The contest is open to high school students from across the US. It has awarded millions to students for their scientific innovation in the fields of math, science and technology for more than a decade.

But in an era of dwindling education budgets, not all US high school math and science programmes are created equally; nor do they offer the same opportunities to cultivate talent.

Still, three teens from Long Island, New York, have demonstrated it is possible to overcome the odds.

After three years of hard work, the payoff for high school students - Allen Shin, Jeremy Appelbaum and William Gil - is beyond their expectation.

'Truly indescribable'

Gil, one of three students to win the group category of the contest for 2012, told me: "It's amazing. It's truly indescribable, getting first place at the prestigious Siemens competition."

The three teens isolated a tumor suppressing protein in a common outdoor plant or fern.

The research will be applied to animals and humans to further cancer research.

The students told me they would never have achieved this victory were it not for the encouragement of their high school teacher and mentor, Terrence Bissoondial.

But Bissoondial is modest. He attributed the team victory to the students' talents that were evident when they first entered his class.

"When they come in they want to work on cancer, they want to work on viruses, they want to work on stem cells and all I show them is the boring plant."

He says the students' passion in spite of their resource limitations allowed them to take home one of the competition's $100,000 grand prizes.

Remarkable discovery

It is remarkable when you consider this discovery came out of a modest, public high school on the urban fringes of New York City.

The students' budget for their research was just six hundred dollars.

Appelbaum said the win demonstrates, "kids coming out of high school who don’t really have the opportunity to go to university, to do research there, to spend the money, can use limited funding and create a project that can obviously mean great things for the country and the judges here".

Just 93 students qualified for the nationwide competition.

The finalists were judged based on their project’s ability to advance research, its creativity and the students’ innovation.

The contest's individual grand prize winner for 2012, Kensen Shi, won for creating an computer algorithm that allows robots to move more like humans.

'Global platform'

Jeniffer Harper-Taylor, president of the Siemens Foundation, the philanthropic arm of Siemens Corporation, says all of the 2012 finalists demonstrated academic excellence and sophistication beyond their years.

"We really want to recognise them because we know they’ll be the next generation of leaders, so with that the work that they’re doing should be recognised in the United States and on a global platform," she said.

The scholarship money awarded to Shi and to the group winners, means students like Shin, a child of South Korean immigrants, can now afford to apply to top universities that will cultivate his talents – schools his parents would otherwise not be able to afford.

“I don’t think I would have been able to go to university or anything like that, or go to university to do research," Shin said.

This win has changed that. Now, as the US looks to slash spending, already strained education programmes could face another five billion in federal budget cuts.

Still, these students have shown even in an era of scant resources, it seems that few things pay off better than sheer talent and hard work.