I have a big problem with high school research competitions, and I’ll tell you why. It’s not that there aren’t too few of them, but that they only promote research in specific fields.
A staggering number of these competitions, stereotypically speaking, have winners with Asian or Indian sounding names, often with an project aptly titled “A Novel [Approach|Solution] to [cancer|rescue|babies|water filtering-related problem] [using|via|through] [some chemical process] of [insert very technical subject here]…”
Basically, this isn’t a research competition. This is just telling kids, “Hey, solve world problems, cure cancer, right here right now.” And they’ll get sponsors or their schools to pay for extremely expensive equipment for what is just a chemistry project that they want to get published.
That’s it. It’s all just chemistry and biology. The point is that there is not enough value placed in programming. Who wrote the software you used to analyze the concentration of that gas? Who wrote your phone’s operating system? Who wrote the library you used to make that one-liner in Python so you could say “Hey, I made a program, all by myself”?
We work in the backstage, and our software does not solve world problems in one step. But we give others the tools they need to do it, and sometimes we try to use them ourselves to solve our own problems, and often to help others.
Just because I’m a programmer doesn’t mean I want to work for Apple, or Google, or Microsoft. I don’t want to become an indie game developer, nor do I want to make websites for a living. I have aspirations. Aspirations like getting ahold of a quantum computer and using that to accelerate artificial intelligence, or using parallel computing to speed up simulations sure sound like something I want to do.
And the problem is there aren’t enough of me. What I want to do still doesn’t exist. This branch of knowledge is almost, but not quite, ripe for the picking. This is why nobody has the understanding to support or assist me in what I want to do. The problem extends further: because not enough people understand the branch, judges cannot endorse it because they don’t understand enough of it to determine how sound a hypothesis is.
In short, trying to enter an AI- or CS-related project into one of the multitude of high-stakes research competitions is almost like going against the current, because not only do not many people understand the topic, but not many people can support me for it, either, and the judges do not understand how significant the findings in the field would be due to its highly theoretical nature.
When people ask why I never entered a project into a national competition, this is what I try to tell them. But they shake their head saying, “No, you can do anything you want.” The truth is that this is not completely accurate. Almost all winning entries are chemistry and biology projects.
Now two strata come into mind: one, the highly capable, diligent, loyal, photogenic, superhuman minorities who cram band, service projects, Habitat for Humanity, orchestra, quintuple 800s, 36 on ACT, service projects, and apparently research projects too; and the highly capable, but apparently perceived to be lazy, highly knowledgeable hackers who waste their time playing video games.
Let’s return to reality.