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61 LI students named Intel semifinalists

 by JOHN HILDEBRAND / john.hildebrand@newsday.com

Students from Jericho High School, 2012 semifinalists in

Long Island once again produced more student winners in the national Intel science contest than any region of the country — one out of every five, in fact.

Many teachers and professors, however, say the job of prepping teenage whizzes for competition against counterparts in California and other states is becoming tougher as schools cut back on their research budgets.

Wednesday, the Island captured 61 semifinalist slots in the Intel Science Talent Search out of 300 awards nationwide. New York had more semifinalists than any other state — 105 — followed by California, at 41.

The Jericho school district had the Island’s largest number of semifinalists this year with seven, followed by Great Neck with six, and the Bellmore-Merrick and Three Village districts with five apiece. Stuyvesant High School in Manhattan led the nation with 13 semifinalists, followed by Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., and the Harker School in San Jose, Calif., with 11 each.

Some of the students said seeing their names posted on the Intel Science Talent Search’s website at 3 p.m. was an intensely personal experience.

“It was just a shock,” said Rachel Davis, 18, a semifinalist from Smithtown High School East.

Davis spent months in a Stony Brook University laboratory on her project — developing a new type of flame-resistant plastic. The teen became interested in fire prevention five years ago, after her family’s Nissequogue home burned down.

Miriam Rafailovich, a Stony Brook research professor who worked with Davis and four other semifinalists across the region, is pleased with this year’s results. She’s noticed, however, that she now spends much more time helping high school students fill out contest entrance forms, which used to be done in their home districts. Rafailovich attributed the change to cuts in district teaching staffs over the past several years.

“A lot of the high schools are having problems,” she said.

A few miles away, the research director at Ward Melville High School said financial pressures also are being felt there. During the past several years, there have been reductions in the number of research classes taught and the number of teachers assisting him.

The director, George Baldo, said he understands the need for the cuts, but worries about the long-range effects of tax caps and other restrictions on schools’ research spending. “The bottom line is that there’s not enough money to do everything,” Baldo said.

The Intel Science Talent Search, formerly known as the Westinghouse contest, is the nation’s oldest student research competition. It is funded by the Intel Corp., a California-based computer-chip giant.

Student researchers win $1,000 each and a chance to compete for national scholarships, including a top prize of $100,000. Semifinalists’ high schools each get a $1,000 matching award.

Forty finalists will be named Jan. 25. In mid-March, the top 10 national winners will be announced in Washington, D.C., after the 40 finalists travel there, all expenses paid, for tours, meetings with scientists and government leaders, and final judging. Finalists not named to the top 10 each receive $7,500.

The Island’s schools have ranked among the nation’s top producers of Intel winners for more than 20 years. While the region’s more affluent schools tend to dominate, those of more modest means also have an impact.

For example, Brentwood High School had a semifinalist this year — Samantha Garvey, 17 — after producing three semifinalists last year.

“I’m elated. We’ve come so far with our program,” said Rebecca Grella, who has served as Brentwood‘s science research teacher for 10 years.

Grella, who started with four student candidates for the Intel contest in 2007, now has 70 teens who either vied this year or are training for future competitions. She said the program’s growth has been sustained in large part by private grants, which help compensate for a shortage of public funding. The private money includes $10,000 obtained last year through the National Science Teachers Association, with funding from Toyota Corp., which helped build an aquatics lab that Garvey used for research on shellfish.

“It’s another full-time job, in and of itself,” Grella said of the grants chase. “But the bright side is that it’s going to such a wonderful cause.”

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