Two South Bay teens named finalists in global science competition

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Arjun Gurjar and Sophia Tran have always been interested in science. For 17-year-old Arjun, that began when he got a DK Encyclopedia at age 5. For 16-year-old Sophia, it started with her high school psychology class, and a fascination with the inner-workings of the brain. For years, the two South Bay teens dove into different scientific topics — from trying to understand Alzheimer’s disease to attempting to unravel the immune system.

Arjun Gurjar, sits next to his computer in his room at his home in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023. Gurjar is a finalist in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group)
Arjun Gurjar, sits next to his computer in his room at his home in Santa Clara, Calif., on Sunday, Sept. 17, 2023. Gurjar is a finalist in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. (Nhat V. Meyer/Bay Area News Group) 

But now, both South Bay high schoolers have put that knowledge to the test: they are among 30 finalists in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global competition that challenges students to create original, digestible videos about a complex scientific topic. Arjan focused on how viruses can cure diseases; Sophia explained how neurotransmitters affect the nervous system.

“Science has always been something where you go into a classroom, take out a textbook, read something and learn it,” said Sophia, who lives in San Jose and attends St. Francis High, a private school in Mountain View. “That’s not necessarily a bad thing. But I think it’s refreshing to get a new perspective — through the eyes of teenagers — to make us re-examine how we view and understand things.”

In the past, winners have explained everything from quantum tunneling to neutrino astronomy in two minutes or less. Those who take home the top prize will earn a $250,000 scholarship, a $50,000 prize for their teacher, and $100,000 toward a new science lab for their high school. From now until Wednesday, September 20, Arjun and Sophia’s videos will be judged alongside the 28 other finalists by people across the world.

There’s Adora from Hong Kong, who — in one minute and 59 seconds — explains the science behind taking a photograph; Brandon from Australia, who breaks down quantum computing in twenty seconds less; and Isabella from Portugal, who describes the biological process of aging just one second shy of two minutes.

The key to the competition is making complicated topics digestible. For Arjun, that meant comparing a type of genetic sequencing to an iPhone’s airdrop feature. And for Sophia, that meant using her love of shaved ice to relay how neurotransmitters work. And for 18-year old Bayanni Rivera from Larkspur in Marin County, that involved baking a loaf of raisin bread to explain how the universe expands.

“With recent events, there’s been a backdown of trust on science,” said Arjun, who lives in Santa Clara and goes to the Harker School, a private school in San Jose. “I think having these types of videos — with smaller, individual communicators — could rebuild the public’s trust in science, while also making it something that’s actually exciting.”

The students, whose ages range from 13 to 18, have already passed through two selection rounds: a peer-to-peer review and evaluation panel. Now, they’re at the third of five steps in the process. Until Sept. 20, the public is invited to vote for the video they find most compelling, engaging and informative. The day after that, the finalists, popular vote and regional champions will be announced.

Saint Francis High School senior Sophia Tran's entry video, in which she explains how neurotransmitters affect the nervous system, is shown on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, in Mountain View, Calif. Tran is among 30 finalists in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global competition that challenges students to create original, digestible videos about a complex scientific topic. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group)
Saint Francis High School senior Sophia Tran’s entry video, in which she explains how neurotransmitters affect the nervous system, is shown on Friday, Sept. 15, 2023, in Mountain View, Calif. Tran is among 30 finalists in the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global competition that challenges students to create original, digestible videos about a complex scientific topic. (Dai Sugano/Bay Area News Group) 

The video that wins the popular vote, garnering the highest number of likes and positive reactions, will bypass the second phase of judging and skip toward the final selection round. Later this year, a final selection committee — including American astronauts; professors in math, chemistry and physics; and Khan Academy’s founder Sal Khan — will announce the 10th winner of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge.

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