While most students at the recent California State Science Fair were staring at their shoes and fidgeting as bespectacled judges examined their projects, Danh and Huy Nguyen stood chatting with their elders like they were longtime colleagues.
The Nguyens' comparative ease wasn't all that surprising. After all, science fairs are old hat to the two brothers.
Danh, 15, and Huy, 16, are the third and fourth children in a family of five scientifically gifted siblings, otherwise referred to as the Nguyen (pronounced New-yen) Dynasty by teachers and students at Inglewood High School.
The Nguyen children, four brothers ages 15 to 19, and their 14-year old sister, Van, earned their reputation by collectively winning more than a dozen awards for their individual projects at local and state science fairs.
The series of victories started in 1981 when the two oldest brothers, Dai and Loc, who are now enrolled in pre-engineering and premedical courses at UCLA, won the Inglewood Unified School District's TRW-Inglewood Science Fair with a project that studied hereditary patterns.
"Since then, I honestly can't remember a year when one of them hasn't won something or other for some sort of complicated science project," said Michael Tomac, an Inglewood High School biology and physics teacher who has taught four of the five Nguyens.
"It appears that they feed off each other," Tomac said. "Each one gets progressively better than the last."
The Nguyens' distinctions include five first-place awards in the district's TRW-sponsored science fair, several first-, second-, and third-place awards in the Los Angeles County Science Fair and, most recently, an honorable mention at the California State Science Fair at the California Museum of Science and Industry on May 22.
"We hoped for better, but we are proud that we received recognition for our work," said Huy after receiving his honorable mention for a device that determines the gravitational force between two objects by measuring the electrical current needed to draw a free-standing bar with a slight magnetic field away from a weighted object.
One reason the Nguyens have done so well lies in their devotion to their science projects. After school, while their peers were out playing or shopping, Huy and Danh would rush home and spend three to four hours working to perfect the most recent project.
The family garage is part laboratory, part factory, where the children turn out massive contraptions that do everything from splitting apart amino acids to measuring the growth of a rare toxic fungus.
After the youths eat, it's usually back to the garage for another hour before tackling that evening's homework assignments. The schedule leaves little time for teen rituals like dating and parties, although Danh and Huy have found time to play on the junior varsity tennis team this year.
"Different people have different priorities," Huy said. "We are good at science and math so we spend a lot of time doing it. It is important to us and to our parents."
The Nguyen family fled Vietnam for the United States in 1975. After a brief stay at a refugee camp in Arkansas, the family moved to Northern California, where a Lutheran church had agreed to help them. In 1979, the family moved to Southern California in search of better jobs and settled near relatives in Inglewood.
Hoanh Nguyen, an accountant at the Inglewood Woman's Hospital, and her husband, Vinh, a computer programmer for an oil company in West Los Angeles, speak with pride of their children's accomplishments.
"I feel blessed," Hoanh Nguyen said. "We are surprised by their ability, but we are so glad that they love to study," said Hoanh, who said she can't remember ever having to remind her children to study.
"My children spend most of their time at home, where they study or work on their projects or work on the computer. Those are their toys. Those are their friends."
Indeed, district officials hope other students will find inspiration in the Nguyens' accomplishments. The math and science scores of Inglewood students have generally lagged behind those of students in other South Bay districts, said Inglewood High Principal Lawrence Freeman, who hopes the Nguyens might provide role models for other students.
"Our students can learn a lot from the Nguyen kids. Those kids are energetic. They work hard. They are going to go places," said Freeman, who regularly congratulates students for their accomplishments in the school bulletin or over the public address system.
But for Danh, Huy and their sister, Van, all of whom won honors in this year's TRW science fair, it is the accomplishment of tackling a complex problem, not recognition, that is the main source of their satisfaction.
"We don't enter our projects in science fairs to be noticed at school," Danh said. "That's not what science is for. But if people notice what we do, we don't complain."