Gifted grade-school kids zip past their elders

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By Roger Snodgrass

A story that emerged from the New Mexico Supercomputer Challenge in Los Alamos sent out a definite message to other students in the state.

A team of fifth-graders from Aspen Elementary entered the statewide competition as long shots against hundreds of high-school and middle-school opponents from all over the state.

To their thrill and surprise, they won two prizes against a bunch of older students. One was an award for Best HTML. The other was for Forensics and Encryption.

Now, they are each $50 dollars richer and walking on air.

Dhaivat Pandya, Colin Redman, Matthew Ticknor, are Gifted and Talented Education (GATE) students.

According to their sponsoring teacher, Zeynap Unal, they started with the advantages of their basic strength in math and computers.

“They grasped the concept quickly,” she said, particularly the importance of teamwork and collaboration, dividing up responsibilities with each taking on a piece of the problem, she added.

The team met twice a week during lunch hours and Unal said they never missed a meeting all year. They also sacrificed evening and weekends to work on their project.

Their mentor was Redman’s mother, Elizabeth Cooper.

Team 15, as they were known in the competition, crystallized their project in an application called a “Caesar Cipher Applet Demo,” which they found and modified from an open source library.

Their version of the applet was included with their final report at http://www.challenge.nm.org/finalreports/15.pdf.

It’s also accessible separately online at http://mail.ergotech-usa.com.

The Aspen team’s final report is 41 pages, spelling out what they chose for their problem and how they went about solving it.

“They took an online Java course through the lab,” Unal said, referring to the programming language the students used and continued to study for their encryption investigation.

The boys knew they were competing against older kids, she said. As the final competition neared, they asked her, “Do we really have a chance?”

As it turned out, they had more than a chance; they had a winner.

Another team of youngsters from Los Alamos did very well. Rachel Robey and Jessie Bohn of Los Alamos Middle School won second prize in the overall competition, worth $500 each, a step ahead of a lot of high school students. Their project was about saving energy through smart design efficiency.

Altogether the 18th annual Supercomputing Challenge engaged more than 330 students from 33 schools around the state.

Unal said her elementary team will be back again, when the next challenge starts up in the Fall.

“They already have an idea for next year,” she said.