This week, 17-year-old Tim Dong is visiting Washington, the first time in his life he's been to the East Coast.
"From where I started, I never had any idea I'd get to this point," he said. The Alhambra High School senior will dine with leading researchers, chat with politicians and compete for $530,000 in college scholarships in the finals of the nation's most prestigious contest for budding young scientists. He will be representing California.
All by himself.
It's an off year for the Golden State, a longtime powerhouse in the Intel Science Talent Search that has produced at least four of the 40 nationwide finalists each of the last four years. Each winter, the finalists are selected from thousands of high school seniors nationwide who conduct original scientific research.
Previously known as the Westinghouse for its first sponsor, the 60-year-old contest has a proven record of identifying groundbreaking thinkers. Finalists have earned five Nobel Prizes, two Fields Medals (the Nobel of the math world) and 10 MacArthur grants.
This year, however, America's most populous state has produced only one finalist in the contest, which is sponsored by a California-based company. By contrast, Illinois has five and Maryland has four. New Jersey and Texas have two each. And New York, long a dominant force in the contest, has 15. There are more finalists-- two--from Manhasset High School on Long Island than from all of California.
"I'm happy for Tim," said Duane Nichols, the Alhambra High science teacher who has supported Dong's prizewinning chemistry project. "But it's embarrassing for the state to not be better represented."
In the state's defense, California also sent a lone finalist to Washington in 1994 (though it produced more semifinalists then than it did this year). Nonetheless, California's poor showing this time around has added to worries about the quality of the state's science education. Last year, California's eighth-graders tied for last among 40 states on the National Assessment of Educational Progress science test.
"What we've seen in California over the last few years is a de-emphasis of the kinds of hands-on science that encourages people to go into science," said Christine Bertrand, executive director of the 3,600-member California Science Teachers Assn. "When you see the results of the Intel talent search, you see that we reap what we sow."
Education officials cite a lack of opportunity for California students to do laboratory work. Many teachers blame the state's assessment tests, which focus on reading and math skills to the exclusion of science. Others say California's 4-year-old standards for teaching science cover so many subjects that they leave little time for the lab.
"The standards de-emphasize investigation and experimentation," said state Supt. of Public Instruction Delaine Eastin.
Other teachers and experts discount the significance--and the relevance--of the science contest. Mike Aiello, a science teacher at San Luis Obispo High who helped draft the state science standards, argues that California faces far more basic problems than its yield of Intel finalists. It has too many needy students who speak too many different languages to worry about science contests, which remain the purview of well-off high schools and science magnets, he said.
And the state's top students, others argue, prefer to devote their energies to Advanced Placement classes and the sports, entertainment and extracurricular activities available in a state so blessed by the sun.
But the story of Dong belies such arguments.
The son of immigrants, he attends an ordinary public high school, with test scores that rank slightly below state averages. He found an opportunity to perform high-level research through initiative, rather than privilege or connections. Devoted to his science project, Dong has not been defined by it. He has found time to serve as class treasurer, write for the school paper and take part in the election for homecoming king--which he won.
"Tim is extraordinary in many ways, but in others he's a regular teenager," said Nichols, his teacher.
Dong said his research "certainly didn't take all my time. I don't think I missed anything."
Dong's parents, Dawson and Suli Dong, are natives of Taiwan who settled in Alhambra 20 years ago. Dawson Dong, an engineer, found a job at the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. Suli Dong works as a management analyst for the Los Angeles Police Department.
The Dongs sent Tim, the elder of two children, to a private Lutheran school through the seventh grade. With finances tight, they transferred him to public school in the eighth grade.
At Alhambra High, he applied for a special science program run by Nichols. "I had an interest in science and math," Dong said. "But I didn't really have the preparation."
Nichols, a 60-year-old who has taught at Alhambra High for three decades, started the program called "biomedical research" 20 years ago at the behest of eager students.