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Science Smarts: Talent search honors top student projects in math, science, and engineering

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1:57pm, March 13, 2002
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Forty students who defy the national trend of slumping test scores in math and science reaped rewards for their excellence this week.

At a black-tie dinner in Washington, D.C., the Intel Science Talent Search handed out top awards in its 2002 competition for high school seniors. The contest, formerly sponsored by Westinghouse, has been administered for 61 years by Science Service, the publisher of Science News.

Leading this year's winners were contestants with projects in engineering and mathematics. "As these students complete their education and move into the workforce, they will play a significant role in curing diseases, protecting the environment, and developing breakthrough computer technologies," said Craig Barrett, chief executive officer of Intel.

Ryan R. Patterson, 18, of Central High School in Grand Junction, Colo., nabbed first place and a $100,000 scholarship for inventing a glove that converts the hand positions of American Sign Language to letters on a portable display. The project also earned Patterson top awards at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in San Jose, Calif., last May (SN: 5/19/01, p. 311: San Jose hosts 2001 science competition).

For less than $200, Patterson built a prototype of his translation device. A dozen sensors rigged into a golf glove monitor the positions of the wearer's hand and fingers, and a small transmitter on the back of the hand beams those data to a receiver that translates the information into the appropriate letter.

Patterson designed the circuitry for the glove and the data processor. When researching the project, he says that he was "shocked to find out that nobody had invented one of these already." As it turns out, other engineers with similar goals were hard at work but just a bit too slow. Patterson's application for a patent barely beat out one filed by Hitachi, the Japanese electronics giant.

Second place, and a $75,000 scholarship, went to Jacob Licht, 17, of West Hartford, Conn., for his mathematical research into "rainbow" Ramsey theory, which states that patterns must exist even within disorder. Emily E. Riehl, 17, of Bloomington, Ill., won the third-place $50,000 scholarship for her study of graphs of a mathematical set known as the Coxeter group.

Fourth through sixth places, along with $25,000 scholarships, were awarded, respectively, to Kirsten L. Frieda, 17, of Austin, Texas, for her study of the interactions between molecules just before they collide; Marc A. Burrell, 18, of Glendale, Wis., for his research into using plants such as wheat for removing lead contamination from soils; and Nikita Rozenblyum, 17, of New York City, for his mathematical studies of topology and knot theory.

The 7th through 10th finishers each won a $20,000 scholarship. The recipients, in order, are Beckett W. Sterner, 17, of Chicago, for his computer simulations of statistics related to long-chain polymer molecules; Brandon M. Palmen, 18, of Rochester, Minn., for his research into using the measles vaccine virus to target and destroy skin cancer cells; Vivek Venkatachalam, 18, of Berkeley Heights, N.J., for his demonstration of how measurements of the distances of supernovae from Earth provide evidence for an accelerating expansion of the universe; and Jessica R. Stahl, 17, of Rockville Centre, N.Y., who developed a way to quantify postures and body movements during her investigation of behavioral response to music.

Each of the 30 other finalists won a $5,000 scholarship and a computer. The awards banquet on March 11 capped a week in which the students met President George W. Bush and presented their research at the National Academy of Sciences. This year, for the first time, each of the contest's 40 finalists had an asteroid named in his or her honor.

Intel's Barrett urged the student whizzes to follow the motto, "Don't be encumbered by history, just go out and do something wonderful."

"I'll be handing out job applications later," he quipped.

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