Whip-smart whippersnappers at Google Science Fair

Boonsri Dickinson gets happily intimidated by school kids who are inventing cutting-edge sailboats, keeping trains from derailing, and seem on the verge of finding a cure for cancer.

Fourteen-year-old Lauren Hodge cooks up a winning idea. James Martin/CNET

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif.-- Earlier this week, I spent the day at Google's first-ever Science Fair, and I'll admit it was a little hard not to be intimidated.

After all, I was surrounded by high schoolers who are inventing new types of sailboats, preventing trains from ever derailing again, or who seem on the verge of curing cancer.

The event could well be one of the globe's biggest science competitions, with more than 10,000 13- to 18-year-olds from around the world entering a total of 7,500 projects in the hopes of walking away with the first prize of a $50,000 scholarship.

A panel of teachers used eight different criteria to narrow the swarm of entrants down to 60 semifinalists. And on Saturday, the top 15 finalists were flown to the Googleplex here from India, South Africa, Singapore, Canada, and various parts of the United States.

Judging from my interviews with the students, they've had an exciting time. Among other things, they got a chance to ride around in the Telsa Roadster and had their DNA tested by one of Google's partners in the fair, National Geographic. (Other partners include Scientific American, Lego, and CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research.)

On Monday, the students presented their projects to an all-star panel of judges, including Net pioneer and Google executive Vint Cerf and Segway mastermind Dean Kamen.

I spent the morning in a crowded room, watching visitors mill about the booths and listening to their exclamations of awe at the intelligence of these young students. As you'll see in the embedded video, the kids are articulate, love science, and are proud they spent their summer solving real-world problems.

As Cerf examined the displays, he made it clear that the event wasn't about pouring vinegar on baking soda to simulate a volcanic eruption. "They've done serious research," he said. "It's not just a casual chemistry experiment. Some of these things are patentable, and some of these things might show up in real practice someday."

After an all-day deliberation, the judges chose the grand prize winner: 17-year-old Shree Bose, a high schooler from Texas whose project tackles resistance to chemotherapy among ovarian-cancer patients. Bose developed her project with Alakananda Basu, a faculty member at the University of North Texas Health Science Center in Fort Worth.

Bose devoted last summer to working on the project, but the sacrifice was worth it: She nabs the $50,000 scholarship, along with a 10-day trip to the Galapagos Islands and an internship at CERN, Lego, or Scientific American. That's not a bad way to begin her senior year in high school and jump-start her dream career as a medical researcher.

The winner in the 15- and 16-year-old age group was Naomi Shah, who developed a mathematical model that quantifies the effect of pollutants on the health of asthma patients. Shah discovered that improving air quality indoors can reduce people's reliance on asthma medications. Several of her family members have asthma, so it's a problem that hits close to home. "I wanted to do something to eradicate the problem at the root instead of treating the symptoms on the surface with drugs," Shah said. She received a $25,000 scholarship from Google and a choice of an internship as well.

Finally, Lauren Hodge was the winner in the 13- and 14-year-old age group. Her project shows that marinating chicken in a special way can decrease the amount of carcinogens released in the subsequent cooking process. And yes, she actually uses what she discovered--she loves marinating her chicken in lemon juice. Hodge also received a $25,000 scholarship and an internship at the participating organization of her choice.

All three winners were American--a fact that should reassure those who fear the U.S. is slipping in science. And of course all three were girls--which may not nullify concerns about a gender gap in science, but is certainly encouraging.

The winners proudly posed with their Lego trophies during a formal awards ceremony Monday night. If you want to experience the ceremony for yourself, you can watch footage of it here.

During the ceremony, Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt served up some inspiration.

"All of us understand that scientists break out early," he told the crowd. "They break out young. It comes out early just like entrepreneurship and music talent. This is your Hollywood. This is your opportunity. Maybe you'll end up inventing a new drug that will save millions of people...Maybe you'll do something we cannot even imagine."

And Kamen was similarly moved.

"It's humbling to see how sophisticated [these] kids are," he said. "Some of the stuff we saw them do today, 10 years ago would have won them the Nobel Prize. They give me hope. Getting these kids involved now in some of these issues is the hope of the world."

 

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