About 40 percent of the competitors in the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair come from outside the U.S., reflecting both the pool of talent and the support in other countries for science and education. Among the largest delegations are from China, Brazil and Saudi Arabia, each with 30 or more finalists. The U.S. has 115 finalists.
Eighteen-year-old Hari Rallapalli, a senior at Amador Valley High School in Pleasanton, is very much aware of the rising level of science projects. He won a $25,000 Agilent Technologies award last year, and he's a finalist again this year. While the U.S. still has top research universities and graduate degree programs, Rallapalli suggests that in 10 years, China may emerge as one of the top science countries in the world.
"Definitely China because they are fostering this idea of science, technology, engineering and mathematics as their foundation, their base," he said.
Part of the reason may be tied to education funding cutbacks in the U.S. and a growth in support in China and other nations.
Two finalists from China, one from Shanghai and one from Beijing, both confirmed that their high schools provide extraordinary support. One provides access to professional-level laboratories to do research and experiments; the other has a thriving science club.
"We have a science and technology club, and we get seminars and lectures, and we get to go into real universties and institutions, both academic and industrial, to do our research," said Beijing finalist Yilin Fan.
While the students are competitors at the science fair, they still see themselves as colleagues.
"We are all scientists, and we can learn from each other," said Fangzhou Xiao from Shanghai.
"It's not a matter of OK, I'm doing this and you're doing the same thing, I have to beat you to it," said Rallapalli. "It's more like how can we help each other?"
Monday, the science fair participants set up their booths inside the McEnery Convention Center in downtown San Jose. One-fourth of them already hold patents on their projects. They represent a broad range of science, encompassing robotics, environmental and life sciences, and many other specialties. One finalist has studied the properties of the spice cumin that appears to have a natural ability to inhibit the growth of microbes, preventing illness from spoiled or undercooked food.
The awards ceremony will be held Friday morning at San Jose State University.