Intel Science Talent Search Offers Hope and Inspiration
On March 13, I attended the Intel Science Talent Search Awards Gala Program in Washington, DC honoring the forty high school finalists from across the nation. I've been to a lot of gala award banquets over the past decades; few have offered the hope and inspiration of this one.
The reception was in a large room where the sides were lined with the finalists standing beside a brief poster listing their entry. Every important topic seemed to be represented with an articulate student confidently explaining repeatedly what his or her project was about. Much of the science and technology future of our nation was on display.
At dinner, noted author Walter Isaacson spoke for 10 minutes, weaving in his lessons from his biographies of Benjamin Franklin, Albert Einstein and Steve Jobs. He pointed out to the finalists they were living through the digital revolution, the first major intellectual revolution that people were actually aware they were participating in. As Isaacson noted, "Benjamin Franklin didn't tell people he was living during the Enlightenment." Innovation occurs, was his message, when people look beyond their mental and societal boundaries to envision what can be accomplished. He also noted that great innovators were not strictly scientists, but also were developed in the arts, writing or politics.
Then a video presentation featured a brief statement from each contestant with the recurring theme being the power of curiosity. I was jolted by one student who noted, "I think a child will be curious until told not to be." How many classrooms are truly supported to encourage curiosity instead of adhering to a prescribed course of study?
Another young scientist observed that "the deeper you look into something, the more beauty you will see." The process of learning through inquiry and searching ideally leads to increasing perception and appreciation of whatever is being studied.
As the forty finalists assembled on the tiered risers on the stage, another encouraging impression was seeing much of the diversity of America arrayed before the audience. Some had been brought to this nation by their parents where they would be contributing to America's future growth. Others were from families long established on these shores. Whatever the origin, this country would benefit greatly from these forty students looking out over the seated audience.
The students also typified what Walter Isaacson had noted earlier about innovators having different interests. As each student walked across the stage, the announcer mentioned their additional accomplishments. An opera singer, a champion debater, a poet., a musician, a magician...happily, even a young man interested in education reform. Their accomplishments in science were furthered by their involvement in other subjects and pursuits.
These winning projects were not only intellectual exercises for the finalists. One winner of a major award developed a seismic device that could identify landmines. Her motivation? To protect her cousins in Mozambique who constantly must avoid the long-buried destruction from past war. That may be the most dramatic example of engaging students with projects relevant to their lives that I have heard of.
So some quick observations: While these students are some of the most accomplished in the nation, they also represent what can be achieved in schools and learning environments across the country. Many credited their teachers for providing the encouragement and guidance to bring them to this moment. These students also represent the power of deeper learning approaches that stress creative and critical thinking, collaboration, communication, teamwork and self reflection. They also excelled because they had expansive, not narrow, interests.
As Walter Isaacson noted in his opening sentences, this is a digital revolution that these students are experiencing. How much of their accomplishments were enabled by digital technology that did not exist ten years ago? How much more will the finalists standing on the stage in five years be able to accomplish as education technology expands even further? And perhaps most important, how will digital learning extend the learning opportunities embraced by these eager students to many more students across the nation. With quality teaching and effective technology, curiosity's quest can start with a click.
Bob Wise is president of the Alliance for Excellent Education and former governor of West Virginia.