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Think Quest

Until last year, Sizwe Ngcobo, a 16-year-old South African student, was leading a sheltered life. He lived with his grandmother in a very poor township near Durban, South Africa. Sizwe's exposure to the world around him was very limited; he traveled less than two miles every day to and from a school for children with mental disabilities and had never left his township. In fact, Sizwe's only window to the world was a small television set.

In contrast, Jason Yeo and Janine Yeo, two teens from Singapore, were leading a more progressive life with access to computer technology. The gap between the two worlds closed when all three participated in the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge in the summer of 1999.

Teammates Jason Yeo, 17, of Raffles Junior College and Janine Yeo, 14, of Raffles Girls' School, set out to create a Web site for students that chronicles major events of the 20th Century, but were in need of a teammate who had the capability to provide artwork. At the same time, Robin Opperman, an art teacher at Ningizimu School for the Severely Mentally Disabled in Montclair, South Africa, was working with ThinkQuest organizers to enter one of his students, Sizwe, who speaks Zulu and had never seen a computer. "The reason I entered him is because I knew he had great potential and could provide the art for the site," said Opperman. "He is very friendly, alert and keen to learn." With the assistance of ThinkQuest and their South African National Partner, SchoolNet, Sizwe was paired with the Singaporean team.

Janine and Jason planned the site's concepts and designed the layout. Both researched historical topics and wrote numerous articles before the pair converted the text to html. The Singaporean students were responsible for most of the computer-related work because Sizwe had no direct access to computers or the Internet. Nevertheless, Sizwe joined the expanding world of technology by teaming with Janine and Jason to complete the educational site, The Passing of the Century, http://library.advanced.org/27629/about.html, which won a Silver Award in the Arts & Literature category in the 1999 ThinkQuest Internet Challenge.

Opperman said Sizwe needed a fair amount of coaching, but took the initiative with the artistic aspects of the project. Sizwe drew elements of the Web site on cardboard with felt-tip pens. The images were then scanned and e-mailed to Singapore with the help of Opperman and his computer. In all, Sizwe learned to research and his writing and drawing skills improved. Because of his work on this site, Sizwe's own view of the world has expanded and he now understands how the Internet links people across the globe.

Jason and Janine, too, learned to overcome adversity. A few weeks before the deadline, Jason's PC crashed due to a virus making files inaccessible. Also, Janine's modem malfunctioned and had to be replaced. In the end, they met their deadlines.

This team is a shining example of how ThinkQuest not only provides students the chance to build their creativity and technology skills; it also promotes teamwork. Sizwe, Jason, and Janine were named finalists in the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge and were invited to the 4th Annual ThinkQuest Awards weekend in Los Angeles to compete against the other finalists. When teammates Jason and Janine heard that Sizwe and Opperman were having difficulties paying their visas to come to the U.S., they took it upon themselves to collect donations at their schools in Singapore. In November, everything came together. Sizwe was able to travel outside the borders of his township on his first plane ride and meet his teammates face to face at the ThinkQuest Awards Weekend in Los Angeles.

Working on an international project like ThinkQuest brought Sizwe beyond technological and sociological borders alike, and it taught Jason and Janine about the limitations of living in a third-world country. "Students like Sizwe battle with concepts like fax machines, let alone the Internet," said Opperman. "Prior to ThinkQuest Sizwe had never used a computer. He had never been out of his country. He had never even been on an airplane."

"Sizwe's real, everyday life was so divorced from the Internet, partly because he is so poor and partly because he's mentally challenged," said Opperman. "His world had been his home and school and the bus rides in between. This project gave him the opportunity to see that there is something beyond his world-that there is something else out there."

Like Sizwe, many other children come from disadvantaged homes or communities, and ThinkQuest is a ticket to the world for them. "This is not just about Sizwe," Opperman continued. "This is about a lot of students. Some who have never been on the Internet, but who need to be given a chance to put their stories, ideas and poems out there."

ThinkQuest is a program that allows students and educators to work in teams to build high-quality, educational web sites on a variety of subjects while competing for $2 million annually in scholarships, cash, and awards. There are three ThinkQuest contests: ThinkQuest Internet Challenge for students ages 12-19, ThinkQuest Junior for students in grades four through six, and ThinkQuest for Tomorrow's Teachers for K-12 teachers, prospective teachers, and college and university faculty. In all three contests, team members collaborate to design educational Web sites that are used as interactive learning tools by others around the world. While a ThinkQuest Internet Challenge team is made up of no more than three students and three coaches, and typically involves participants from different parts of the world. ThinkQuest Junior, a United States based contest, is for teams that consist of up to 6 students and 2 coaches, most often from the same school. The newest contest is ThinkQuest for Tomorrow's Teachers, just finishing its first year in 1999, that matches from four to seven current or prospective teachers and may include one technology mentor.

Since its inception in 1996, 50,000 students and educators from 100 countries have participated in the not-for-profit ThinkQuest programs, winning a total of over $5 million in scholarships, cash, and awards for themselves and their schools. The ThinkQuest programs encourage collaboration, leadership, and critical thinking while simultaneously raising the participants' level of technological competency and self-esteem. Collectively these students and teachers, many of whom are new to technology, have created nearly 3,000 Web sites on topics ranging from Shakespeare to space exploration to holistic health practices. These Web sites are found in the ThinkQuest Library at www.thinkquest.org, the most heavily trafficked educational destination on the Internet with an estimated 20 million hits per week.

While all ThinkQuest programs promote team-building across geographic and socio-economic boundaries, the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge is unique from the other two contests because it provides an opportunity for participants from different countries to work together. The participants come from diverse countries, cultures, age groups, and ability levels and have varying degrees of access to technology. In fact, in 1999 the number of international applications from outside the United States increased by more than 50% to 3,500.

Another ThinkQuest success story focuses on the winners of the 1999 GEM Award at this year's ThinkQuest Awards Weekend for their site called SIGNhear. The SIGNhear site, found at http://library.advanced.org/10202/, not only teaches basic American Sign Language (ASL) but is also designed to give visitors an understanding of the deaf community and its challenges. ThinkQuest's GEM Award is for a team whose entry in a previous ThinkQuest Internet Challenge did not win an award, but has since become widely used by people throughout the world. SIGNhear has received more than 12 million hits since its launch in 1997.

The creative team behind SIGNhear consists of Jennica Humphrey, an eighteen-year-old deaf student from Hendersonville, NC, and two students from England-Adam from Hertforshire, England, and Gerard from London. When the teens were first deciding upon a topic for their site, they found that they had one thing in common - none of them knew sign language.

Jennica has been deaf since the age of two, following a bout with spinal meningitis. Until learning sign language, she had always excelled at lip reading. The thorough research required for her ThinkQuest contest entry gave Jennica the opportunity to start learning sign language, and though she knows she's not fluent, she is thankful this opportunity presented itself. "I'm amazed at how fast some people can sign. It's like a blur sometimes. People think all deaf people know how to sign, but that's not true. I'm glad I've had the chance to learn ASL, but it's still important for deaf people to know more than sign language to better interact with hearing people."

Jennica, Adam, and Gerard worked for more than six months on their site. Along with being the inspiration for the site, Jennica was the primary researcher, writer and still has responsibility for periodically updating the site. Adam, the artist of the team, produced all the graphics and illustrations for the site. While these two provided the content for the site, Gerard put it all together in his role as the HTML coder.

The teammates spent many hours together collaborating over the Internet, but until this past November had never met face to face. All three students were invited to this year's ThinkQuest Awards weekend where they were thrilled to be presented their GEM Award by Academy Award winning deaf actress Marlee Matlin. Jennica was excited to meet Matlin at the Awards. "It was a great surprise to see her. I got to talk to her and she was very nice."

Matlin was inspired by the dedication of the ThinkQuest participants and praised the students for the work done on their site. "It is really an incredible tool for the hearing impaired and the entire community," explains Matlin, winner of the Academy Award for Children of a Lesser God. "I am honored to bestow this award on the very talented group of young people who are making a difference in the lives of so many people. This is an incredible use of the Internet."

Jennica graduated from West Henderson High in Hendersonville, NC, in the spring of 1999 and is now attending Gardner-Webb College in Boiling Springs, NC where she is pursuing a degree in computer science. Programming computers since age fourteen, she credits her ThinkQuest experience with helping to prepare her for her career choice. "I'm interested in a career in computers and technology because it's a way of creating beautiful works of art and applications. It's amazing we are able to create so many things with computers."

ThinkQuest Awards Weekend both Sizwe and Jennica were fortunate to make the trip to Los Angeles last November for the three-day ThinkQuest Awards Weekend. ThinkQuest finalists-students, teachers, and coaches from around the world-gathered in California where they enjoyed a weekend of judging, technology, and fun. Like Sizwe and Jennica, many teams met their partners, in-person, for the first time.

Each finalist team spent about two hours with a group of judges from the Internet Society. This panel of experts looks for compelling and accurate educational content, technical excellence, interactivity and imaginative use of graphics. Teams were also assessed on how well team members collaborated on their entries by sharing their individual knowledge, skills, efforts, and contributions with each other.

The weekend culminated with the awards ceremony on Monday, November 22, where leaders in the fields of education, science, technology, and government, along with several notable education luminaries from around the world, announced the winners in each of the five ThinkQuest categories - Arts & Literature, Science & Mathematics, Social Sciences, Sports & Health and Interdisciplinary. Adding to the excitement, the ceremony featured Olympic gold medallist Kerri Strug, LeVar Burton of Star Trek fame, Kim Kerberger, author of Chicken Soup for the Teenage Soul and the Science Guy himself, Bill Nye. Nye has dedicated his career to letting kids know that science is not only cool, it's powerful. The ThinkQuest competition furthers Nye's commitment to making science relevant to youth.

ThinkQuest program participants learn invaluable skills, whether they are in grade school, college-bound or heading for a vocational career. Many ThinkQuest Internet Challenge students start their own businesses while still in high school, and contest winners use their scholarship winnings to help pay college tuition. This inaugural group of Tomorrow's Teachers winners is translating their newfound resources into improving the instructional process. Regardless of their destination, students and teachers participating in the ThinkQuest programs learn invaluable life skills making them truly Y2K compliant and prepared to succeed as tomorrow's leaders.

 

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