Sunday, February 19, 2006

The Politically Incorrect Science Fair - Stem cells, global warming, intelligent design. Looking for a leg up, kids turn to trendy topics: "In Columbus, Ohio, one junior says she can track global-warming effects with a computer model. A 17-year-old in Portland, Ore., is facing off against the intelligent-design movement by wrapping his RNA research around evolution. Elsewhere, students are tackling everything from stem-cell research and avian flu to genetically modified food and abortion.

With federal efforts to promote science in the name of global competitiveness -- President Bush mentioned it in his recent State of the Union address -- science fairs have reached new levels of intensity. Decades ago, kids did their projects at home with mom or dad, then presented them on simple poster boards using rubber cement and colorful cutouts. Today, they spend summers researching their topics in labs, getting help from scientists and submitting their work for publication in professional journals after the fair.

The race is intensifying further, with the number of entrants to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair -- the country's largest, and separate from the Talent Search -- increasing by a third over the past decade. Newer fairs, like the Young Epidemiology Scholars contest and the USA Biology Olympiad, promise scholarships and award money for original investigation.

Some federal agencies are raising the stakes: When the Department of Homeland Security started offering $20,000 college scholarships to high-school students in 2004, the ideas flowed in. This year's contenders proposed an anthrax antidote, a numerical system to predict violent conflict and a computer model that can help identify terrorists' faces.

Serene Chen says she might not be at Harvard now were it not for her application essay, which described her fetal-stem-cell research on the characteristics of Down syndrome. "If you say you studied something like 'random molecule,' it's obscure, but when you say 'stem cells,' people really perk up," says Ms. Chen, 20, now a sophomore.

To be sure, these hot-button projects are the exception at science fairs, mixed in with more traditional topics like "An Exploration into Inter-Polar Magnetic Forces" and "Seismic Signature of Ocean Surf as It Relates to Wave Energy and Coastal Erosion." But some educators and students say projects playing off current debates can improve the odds of getting noticed, winning a prize and having a showpiece entry for a college résumé.

There are pitfalls to the new political science, including fair rules that vary by state and govern what research and materials are allowed. The Massachusetts State Science Fair rules, for example, ban embryonic stem-cell projects, while many states, along with the prestigious Intel Science Talent Search, let them through. And some say latching on to a controversial topic is a cheap way to get buzz. Of a 2002 project involving marijuana muffins for pain management in Santa Cruz, Calif., Mission Hill Middle School science teacher Sherri Kilkenny says, "It got all this attention, but it was very average at best."

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