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The whiz-kid season

Intel ISEF
Sana Raoof, Yi-Han Su and Natalie Saranga Omattage received top

honors at the 2008 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

This is the season when students really shine — and in this spring's science and engineering competitions, women are continuing to close the gender gap.

Following up on last December's first-ever female sweep of the Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology, three 17-year-old young women won the top prizes in last week's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The winners of the $50,000 awards include:

  • Natalie Saranga Omattage of Cleveland, Miss., for developing a more efficient and less expensive way to screen for food additive contaminants, including those responsible for the recent wave of pet deaths.
  • Sana Raoof of Muttontown, N.Y., for a new application of mathematical knot theory to help resolve classic biochemical classification problems.
  • Yi-Han Su of Chinese Taipei for identifying a high-activity catalyst that could improve methanol processing to generate hydrogen more efficiently.

"Sana, Natalie and Yi-Han demonstrate that dedication to science inquiry can transcend boundaries and show what we can accomplish when we focus on mathematics and science," Intel Chairman Craig Barrett said in a news release announcing the winners.

The competition is billed as the world's largest pre-college science fair - offering more than $4 million in awards and scholarships, and drawing more than 1,550 contestants from 51 countries, regions and territories.

The trio received additional attagirls over the weekend from the Sciencewomen blog and from Phil Plait at the Bad Astronomy Blog. Plait observes that "any society that relegates women to an underclass is, at the very least, throwing away half their brain trust."

Maybe it's a generational thing: Studies have shown that elementary-school girls like math and science better than, say, language arts and social studies. In the past, gender stereotypes may have led girls to let those interests slide as they grew older - but societal changes are closing the gap. A couple of years ago, string theorist Eva Silverstein told me this about the seeming gender gap in math and science:

"I don't know what the timescale should be for eliminating the societal influences, but I'm pretty sure it would be ludicrous to expect it to have happened within one generation. Hence, the current numbers fail to provide any meaningful evidence of innate inferiority of women in science. The error bars are huge."

The fact that young women are making more of a mark in high-school science may well show that the charts are settling into a more sensible pattern. In any case, it's heartening to see that even the traditional preserves of "Rocket Boy" geekdom are going co-ed.

AIA / Team America Rocketry Challenge
Students from North Carolina's Enloe High School launch their rocket

during the Team America Rocketry Challenge. The Enloe rocketeers

won the competition on Saturday, beating out 99 rival teams.

One example would be the Team America Rocketry Challenge, which wrapped up over the weekend in The Plains, Va., just outside Washington. More than 100 teams from middle schools and high schools around the country vied in the world's largest rocket competition. A team from Enloe High School in Raleigh, N.C., logged the top score - and it was no big deal that the rocketeers included two women.

The Enloe team will share a prize pool of more than $60,000 with other top finishers, and in July they'll head off to the Farnborough International Airshow for a fly-off against Britain's top student rocketeers, from Horsforth Secondary School in Yorkshire.

Last month's FIRST Robotics Competition provided yet another opportunity for students to shine: The winning team in the April 19 championship was not only co-ed, but international as well: Teams from St. Catharines in Ontario joined up with students from Greenville, Texas, and Sterling Heights, Mich., to take the top honors in the FIRST world championship.

The FIRST competition in Atlanta was the final round in months of competition involving more than 1,500 teams from the United States as well as Brazil, Britain, Canada, Chile, Israel, Mexico and the Netherlands.

Last month also brought NASA's Great Moonbuggy Race, in which students build and race their own human-powered vehicles over a simulated lunar course at the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Ala.

This year's college winners hailed from the University of Evansville in Indiana, with Murray State University and Carleton University taking second and third place. The high-school winners came from Erie High School in Kansas, with two teams from the Huntsville Center for Technology right behind.

Two more traditional whiz-kid competitions are still coming up: This week brings the last round of National Geographic's Geography Bee, with 55 finalists invited from the U.S. states and territories to test their geographical smarts. Take the GeoBee Quiz and find out how you rate. To give yourself a good workout, hold yourself back from using maps, globes and search engines.

Later this month, we'll be following the most tradition-laden bee of them all, the National Spelling Bee. Last year's winning word was "serrefine" (a small forceps). Check out this year's words in the Spelling Bee's Study Zone. And to get a taste of the Bee experience, click your way through this "Dateline NBC" interactive.

What do you think are the best measures for school-age science literacy? Are you feeling more hopeful about the next generation, or less optimistic? Feel free to share your whiz-kid wisdom as a comment below.

Update for 5 p.m. ET May 20:This Boston Globe article cites research indicating that women don't go into certain types of math and science jobs because they prefer not to. One study found that qualified women are significantly more likely to avoid physics in favor of work in medicine and biosciences. Another found a linkage between a preference to work with tools (where men tend to score higher) and the choice of a career in information technology. Those who preferred to work with people (where women tend to score higher) were less likely to choose an IT career.

All this doesn't necessarily contradict the idea that societal factors have pointed women away from math, science and engineering - even though they're otherwise well-suited for those fields.

Rand Simberg discusses the Globe article at Transterrestrial Musings. (Tip o' the Log to Glenn Reynolds at Instapundit.)

Update for 11:30 p.m. ET June 23: I've corrected the reference to the Sciencewomen blog in accordance with Alice Pawley's comment below.