Future scientists face off

The Siemens Competition in Math, Science, and Technology is not a typical high school science fair. The event brings the brightest high school students from across the country together to showcase projects based on months of original, graduate-level research.

They’re also vying for a spot in the national finals, the winner of which receives $100,000.

This weekend, five individuals and five teams of students will compete at Carnegie Mellon for the chance to represent the region in the national competition. The students were chosen as Mid-Atlantic regional finalists out of a pool of 300 semifinalists.

The intricacies of their projects can stump even the judges, eight Carnegie Mellon professors in the Mellon College of Science and Carnegie Institute of Technology.

The competition, now in its eighth year, is sponsored by the Siemens Foundation, an organization devoted to supporting high school programs in math and science. The competition operates in conjunction with the Educational Testing Service (ETS), which selects the 26 teams and 30 individuals who become regional finalists out of an applicant pool of 600 students.

“They’ve sought out Carnegie Mellon because this is a a major research university,” said Bill Elliott, the university’s vice-president for enrollment. Host schools for the other five designated regions are the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (New England), the Georgia Institute of Technology (South), the University of Notre Dame (Midwest), the University of Texas–Austin (Southwest), and Stanford University (West Coast).

“We are one of the most — if not the most — respected regions by the College Board,” said Steve Garoff, a physics professor who has judged the competition four out of the five years the event has been held here. He said the board recruited Carnegie Mellon’s judges to train the judges of another university that was hosting regionals for the first time.

In addition to Garoff, the other judges are Elizabeth Jones, the event’s lead judge and head of the Department of Biological Sciences; Bruce Armitage, associate professor in chemistry; Phil Campbell, an associate research professor in the Institute for Complex Engineered Systems; Cliff Davidson, professor of civil and environmental engineering; William Hrusa, professor of mathematical sciences; Marek Skowronski, professor of materials science and engineering; and John Woolford, professor of biological sciences.

For Garoff, the best part is meeting the students whose projects he evaluates.

“The opportunity to see the finest students in the country was something I couldn’t resist,” he said. “Most years, the regional winner is doing graduate-level work. I’ve seen work that could be incorporated into a thesis. We’re always disappointed that we can’t have more time with the students.”

Mike McCauley, the manager of community affairs for the Siemens Foundation, said that Siemens’ first priority is students.

“The mission of Siemens is to inspire the next generation of scientists and engineers,” he said. “It’s important to recognize these students since they will be the ones to shape the future.”

Neither Garoff nor Elliott knows of a regional finalist from past years’ competitions who now attends Carnegie Mellon.

“Even if students don’t come for undergrad, we leave a good impression on them and their families,” he said.
“We’d like to have some come to graduate school here,” Elliott added.

All 15 of this year’s individual and team finalists are from New York and Maryland.

Each individual or team automatically receives $1000 for being selected as a regional finalist, and an additional $2000 for their school’s math and science program. Individuals who win regionals receive $3000; teams receive $6000. The national grand prize is $100,000.

The national competition will take place December 1–4 at New York University.

A reception and viewing of the students’ research projects will take place on Friday from 5 to 6 p.m. in Rangos Ballroom. The student oral presentations will be on Saturday from 8 a.m. to 1 p.m. in the McKenna/Peter/Wright rooms in the University Center. Students, faculty, and staff are invited to attend.