Claudia Cooper is the exception, not the rule.
The seventh-grader from West Hills Middle School in West Bloomfield, Mich., said she's only recently developed a passion for science. That interest helped her and her classmates take a second- place prize in this year's Toshiba/National Science Teachers Association ExploraVision Awards, the largest student science and technology competition in the nation.
"I actually didn't even like science before this," the 13-year-old said between demonstrations of her team's project: the Intra-Trachea Breathing System, which is meant to filter air and offer a less-burdensome alternative to oxygen tanks for those with breathing problems.
But across the country, teachers and scientists are facing a test tougher than any in the laboratory: How do they keep young students interested in science and engineering, especially at a time when many fear the nation is losing ground to China and other countries in cutting-edge technology and innovation?
"The younger the kids, the ideas are far better. Around fifth grade, they start losing that ... creativity," said Karen Lozano, a University of Texas professor and mother of Pablo Vidal, a third-grader at Discovery Montessori School in McAllen, Texas, which took home a first-place award in the ExploraVision contest for its "intelligent streets" invention, which would use "smart, translucent film" in car windshields to receive traffic updates and warnings from satellites.
First- and second-place ExploraVision Awards were given in four categories based on grade level.
Lawmakers fear students such as Claudia Cooper and Pablo Vidal are becoming more and more rare.
At a House Science, Space and Technology Committee hearing on Thursday, Rep. Roscoe G. Bartlett, Maryland Republican, lamented society's fixation on sports and entertainment, which, he argued, drain students' interest in science.
"I watch the White House and the people that they invite there and slobber all over. They're not scientists, mathematicians and engineers. They're not academic achievers. They're athletes and entertainers," he said. "I have a huge concern that we're not going to be able to retain our position as the premier economic and military power of the world if we're turning out one-seventh as many scientists ... as our competitors."
When most students reach Claudia Cooper's age, it's usually too late.
"People get a lifelong passion for what they're going to do before age 10," said Bill Nye, who works with ExploraVision and spoke Friday at its Friday showcase at the National Press Club in Washington, where winning inventions were on display for the public.
Mr. Nye, a scientist, educator and mechanical engineer, is best known for his Emmy-winning Disney television series "Bill Nye the Science Guy," which ran from 1993 to 1998.
Fifty years ago, he said students were inspired by the Apollo missions and captivated by the idea that man could reach the moon. The ripple effects of that event, he said, are still being felt and serve as fuel to top scientists, government officials and others working toward new breakthroughs.
"I just hope we can achieve the same level of motivation" that the moon mission provided, Mr. Nye said.
One way to get students interested is to get them out of the classroom. What often draws youngsters away from science and toward sports is the concept that science, with its endless formulas and complex chemical cocktails, is a bore, said Arthur Eisenkraft, a professor of science education at the University of Massachusetts at Boston and co-creator of the ExploraVision Awards, now in their 19th year.
"Too often in the day-to-day learning of science, the fun is missing," he said.
The yearly contest, he added, is an important way of fighting that concept.
Some in Congress, however, worry that many students, particularly those in low-income, inner-city school districts, don't have the parental and teacher support system or the needed funding to work on innovative ideas.
One of ExploraVision's winning teams attends Virginia Virtual Academy, an online learning system requiring extensive involvement from parents. Another winning team came from New York City's Stuyvesant High School, which admits students only after they have passed an entrance exam.
"Schools like this simply are not an option for many low-income families," Rep. Marcia L. Fudge, Ohio Democrat, said at Thursday's hearing, where four winning students and their teachers also addressed lawmakers.
Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, Texas Democrat and her party's ranking member on the committee, said that while it's important to recognize and celebrate student achievement, no one should be fully satisfied until all students are on an equal playing field.
"There are too many students across the country who do not have the opportunity to participate," she said. "No one entity can solve this problem alone. There is a role for all of the ... stakeholders."
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