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Student Scientists Break New Ground

String topology. Supercomputing. Systems biology. Esoteric subjects to most, but not to the winners of the 2006-2007 Siemens Competition in Mathematics, Science and Technology, the nation's premiere high school science competition. U.S. Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings presented the awards for the best projects, with top honors going to Dmitry Vaintrob of Eugene, Ore., and the team of Steven Arcangeli, Scott Horton and Scott Molony of Oak Ridge, Tenn., for mathematics and bioinformatics, respectively.

The $100,000 grand prize scholarship in the individual category was awarded to Vaintrob, a senior at South Eugene High School, for his research in string topology, an area of mathematics focusing on shapes, which could provide knowledge to help mathematicians and physicists better understand fundamental forces of nature. In the team category another $100,000 grand prize scholarship was divided equally three ways and awarded to Arcangeli, Horton and Molony, all seniors at Oak Ridge High School, for developing a technique that could one day help scientists engineer biofuel from plants.

"These young science stars are solving tomorrow's problems today," says Thomas N. McCausland, chairman of the board of the Siemens Foundation.

A panel of nationally renowned scientists and mathematicians judged the finalists, who previously had competed in regional competitions held at leading research universities.

Vaintrob was first turned on to string topology when his mentor, Dr. Pavel Etingof, professor of mathematics at MIT, proposed to him a shape theory problem from his own work, which Vaintrob amazingly solved within weeks.

As a result of the Oak Ridge team's winning project, the Oak Ridge National Laboratory received a major grant to continue and further advance the students' research. The team's mentors are scientists at the laboratory.

The Siemens Competition was started in 1998 and is funded by the Siemens Foundation, which annually provides nearly $2 million in scholarships for teachers and awards for students. Students can register online in May for the 2007-2008 competition.

Federal Resources Web Site Redesigned

The Federal Resources for Educational Excellence (FREE) Web site-one of the most popular online resources maintained by the U.S. Department of Education-recently received a massive makeover that has put hundreds of teaching and learning resources easily at the public's disposal.

In the first redesign since its creation in 1998, the new site provides better navigation for some 1,500 resources from more than 35 federal agencies, ranging from interactive astronomy programs from the National Science Foundation to video narratives of Holocaust survivors from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. Resources are organized by academic subject using an appealing display of photos and illustrations. A new "subject map" features more than 100 topics and the number of resources for each. The site is updated weekly.

Ed Department Seeks Star Teachers

The U.S. Department of Education's fourth annual American Stars of Teaching project is currently underway and is seeking nominations for exemplary teachers who use innovative strategies to raise student achievement and make a difference in their lives, Secretary Margaret Spellings announced in January.

One outstanding classroom teacher from each state and the District of Columbia will be honored in the fall as the 2007 American Stars of Teaching. Administrators, colleagues, parents, students and members of the community are encouraged to nominate a teacher they believe exemplifies the sought-after qualities.

"These 'Stars' represent the thousands of teachers in our nation's schools who are committed to the growth of each and every student and are willing to spend the time, effort and energy necessary to make sure that none are left behind," says Spellings.

Nomination forms, which are available online, must be submitted to the department by April 1.

Experts Urge Drastic School Reform

A panel of public policy experts in education and labor recently warned that unless dramatic steps are taken to improve the way students are educated, Americans will lose jobs overseas and see their standard of living drop. The New Commission on the Skills of the American Workforce called for a radical overhaul of U.S. education, which includes paying companies to run school districts, enrolling students in college after 10th grade, and paying teachers more than $100,000.

The bipartisan panel, comprised of two former federal education secretaries, two former labor secretaries and a variety of other luminaries, says that if the system is not radically redesigned by 2021, jobs will be lost to countries like India and China, where workers are better educated and paid less.

The panel's report addresses many topics, but one of its more unusual proposals calls for a rigorous 10th-grade test that would allow those who pass to graduate from high school to pursue technical or vocational training or continue high school work in preparing to attend a four-year institution.

The report says that by allocating fewer resources to grades 11 and 12, the government might save an estimated $60 billion to spend on improvements to the nation's schools, which include creating pre-kindergarten programs and boosting teacher salaries by scrapping pension plans in favor of higher pay and 401(k) options. Commission members say that boosting teacher pay will attract better candidates to the profession. Related proposals include making preschool available to all four-year-olds and low-income three-year-olds, and weighting state funding to send more money to the most disadvantaged students.

Not everyone, however, supports the panel's recommendations. Antonia Cortese, executive vice president of the American Federation of Teachers, says that the proposals include "seriously flawed ideas with faddish allure that won't produce better academic results."

Charles Knapp, chairman of the commission, maintains that the U.S. has a very high cost of education but still produces mediocre results. "The recommendations are absolutely necessary if we want America to maintain its standard of living," he says.

Innovative Charter Schools

In December the U.S. Department of Education released a publication highlighting eight charter high schools that are using innovative methods to help close the achievement gap between low-income, minority and special needs students and their peers.

The schools were chosen in 2005 from over 400 charter secondary schools that are meeting academic targets under the No Child Left Behind law.

The eight schools are: the Media Technology Charter High School, Boston; Gateway High School, San Francisco; The Preuss School, La Jolla, Calif.; SEED Public Charter School, Washington, D.C.; Minnesota New Country School, Henderson, Minn.; North Star Academy Charter School, Newark, N.J.; YES College Preparatory School, Houston; and Toledo School for the Arts, Toledo, Ohio.

Schools Bag Purses

The purses slung over the shoulders of many teenage girls are growing in size, and so are security concerns. In an effort to keep students safe, high school administrators in Minnesota, Kentucky, Florida and elsewhere are now banning purses from classrooms, saying that they can be used to hide weapons or drugs.

There are no statistics on the trend, but according to the National Association of Secondary School Principals (NASSP) more schools are restricting purses to lockers, just like backpacks and other large bags.

But students and educators alike acknowledge that this is not a surefire way to keep prohibited items off school grounds.

Abby Kowitz, a junior at Fergus Falls High School in Minnesota, says the new policy is "kind of pointless." "If someone wants to bring a weapon to school, not being able to carry a purse won't stop them," she says.

"If they're in a locker, I'm not saying it couldn't harm somebody," says Michael Blevins, principal of Conner High School in Hebron, Ken., "but it would have decreased the amount."

District Releases Diabetes Manual

There is no shortage of support and resources for students with diabetes in the Fond du Lac School District in Fond du Lac, Wisc. The district recently joined with the American Diabetes Association in raising public awareness of diabetes and its associated risks. Other prominent community organizations, such as the County Health Department, the Children's Hospital of Wisconsin and the Fox Valley Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, also joined the district to provide support and information for children-and their families-who live with diabetes.

The result is a manual titled "Recommendations for Management of Diabetes for Children in School," intended to enhance the ability of school personnel to meet the needs of children with diabetes and provide insight on care planning, nutrition and physical activity. The district also offers a diabetes-mentoring program that pairs high school and middle school students who have successfully managed diabetes with younger students who are afflicted.

More information about the district program is available by calling the school health and safety department at 920-906-6548.

Grants Support District Safety Plan

In September a freshman at Weston High School in Cazenovia, Wisc., shot and killed principal John Klang, says a criminal complaint charging the student with murder. His preliminary hearing is set for January 30, and he faces mandatory life in prison if convicted of first-degree intentional homicide.

In November the Wisconsin Department of Public Instruction awarded the Weston School District a $25,000 grant, and the U.S. Department of Education awarded the district a $50,000 grant. Superintendent Elizabeth Burmaster and other state education officials hope the grants will help the district recover. It is the first time any district in the state has been awarded grants to fund school security.

The $25,000 grant will help fund the district's new safety plan and security improvements, which call for new door locks and alarms, enhanced communication and the replacement of windows. Camera surveillance systems and remote door locks have recently been purchased. The $50,000 grant funded immediate needs in the aftermath of the tragedy, such as deputy overtime and social workers.

Online Series Examines Business-Education Partnerships

Business Roundtable, an association of 160 leading U.S. corporate CEOs, launched in January an online series showcasing examples of how U.S. businesses and education communities are working together to raise student achievement. The group has been committed to America's students and improving U.S. education performance since the 1983 publication of A Nation at Risk and in general advocates public policies that ensure rigorous U.S. economic growth.

The series, titled "The Intersection," currently consists of reports researched and written by David T. Kearns, former deputy secretary of the U.S. Department of Education and former CEO of Xerox Corporation. Kearns will travel around the country to examine a variety of successful business-education partnerships.

The first article in the series discusses the role the business community has played in the development of High Tech High, a public charter school in San Diego. High Tech High, according to its Web site,, was originally conceived in 1996 by a group of about 40 civic and technology industry leaders assembled by the Economic Development Corporation and the Business Roundtable's San Diego branch. The school was created to be a place where students could be passionate about learning and acquire the basic skills of work and citizenship.

"There are natural synergies that exist between these two worlds," says Kearns. "As a former leader in business and national educational policy, I know firsthand that when business and education intersect, our students have additional opportunities to succeed."

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