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
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
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
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.