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Juan Castro, 17, is one of the qualifying students, scoring 961 out of a possible 1,000 on the test. He’s about to finish high school.

Castro has forever been fixated on understanding how things work. First he took toys apart, then he started in on household appliances.

“I didn’t really care to watch television but I wanted to know how it worked. So I would study it and take it apart, though I wasn’t always able to put it back together properly,” he says, smiling.

His middle-class family could never afford to send him abroad, but now he’s looking at alternatives in the United States, France and Canada.

“I want to be a robotics engineer or theoretical physicist. That’s what attracts me a lot. I want to be a researcher. A theoretical physicist involved in research, in creating technology, in creating energy.”

Ecuador needs new sources of energy. I would love to discover some kind of alternative energy source that revolutionizes things.”

Such ambitions are exactly what the program’s creators seek.

Rodriguez, the science and technology deputy minister, says the object is to cure Ecuador of the “curse of abundance,” the idea that oil wealth has encouraged countries to shun their own development while relying on imports financed by easy exports.

“We get almost everything we need with little effort.”

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Associated Press writer Gonzalo Solano reported this story in Quito and Frank Bajak reported from Bogota, Colombia. AP writer Marco Sibaja in Brasilia, Brazil, contributed to this report.