LINCOLN — Young scientists from across the globe will join forces at the fifth International Earth Science Olympiad (IESO) in Modena, Italy, next month to help solve some Italian environmental problems.
Two key members of the U.S. team are familiar faces in Addison County: Mount Abraham Union High School physics teacher Tom Tailer and team member Kenny Micklas, a rising senior at Mount Abe and a Lincoln resident.
“This is the best preparation for the issues facing the planet that I can think of, whether it’s ocean acidification, rising sea levels, climate destabilization or loss of top soil. These are issues facing everyone on the planet,” said Tailer, who will guide the U.S. team of four with his wife, Beth.
Comprised of one New York student and three from Vermont, the team was chosen last month based on an exam and an essay at the Vermont Governor’s Institute of Engineering, where Tom and Beth Tailer are co-directors. Micklas achieved the test’s highest score.
IESO is an annual earth science competition for secondary school students. Sponsored by the International Geoscience Education Organization, it aims to raise student interest in and public awareness of earth sciences, as well as to enhance earth science learning of students. It also forges friendly relationships among young learners from different countries and fosters international cooperation in exchanging ideas and materials about earth science and earth science education.
As 25 teams head to Italy, Tailer said participants will learn not just about science but also about cooperation, as he described the Sept. 5-14 event as more of a “coopetition” than a competition.
In the first part of the Olympiad, national teams will compete against each other, but after the contest is finished the groups will form 12 international teams, working together to solve or reduce the damage of looming environmental catastrophes.
“They will be taken to small towns where there are real crises occurring,” said Tailer. “One village is about to be wiped out by a huge landslide.”
According to Tailer, the team tasked with reducing the impact of this landslide will consider such options as how the land might be stabilized and whether people might relocate their homes. A similar crisis arose at last year’s Olympiad in Indonesia, where a volcano threatened to wipe out an entire village.
Solving catastrophic problems is a plus, said Tailer, but fostering international cooperation is a must.
“If we are going to address these issues, we have to work not just in our country, but we have to work with the concept of community on the global scale,” he said. “The adults at this conference don’t always see eye to eye. We don’t always work as politely as we could. But the kids do. They are willing to bypass cultural differences, and they are willing to look way past gender issues and go straight to the core issues of sustainability.”
EARTH SCIENCE IN THE U.S.
Neither Tailer nor Micklas expect the U.S. team to grab a gold at this year’s Olympiad. Micklas explained that the earth science Olympiad doesn’t hold the same sort of weight as the International Mathematical Olympiad. It’s simply not as popular.
“Nobody really cares about earth science in the U.S.,” said Micklas.
Students from Asian countries like China, Japan and Indonesia are traditionally the strongest competitors. Tailer attributes this phenomenon to the fact that these countries deal with more natural disasters than have the applicants for the U.S. team.
“If Vermont was plagued with earthquakes, tsunamis, typhoons, volcanic mudslides and eruptions, we would take earth science much more seriously. These countries do,” he said. “So for them to be an earth scientist or geophysicist is more prestigious than being a doctor or a lawyer.”
Americans’ relaxed attitude toward earth science is shortsighted, Micklas said.
“We really need to focus a lot on earth science for the future because we need to find alternative sources of energy and all of that relates to the earth and how we get power. It’s kind of the basis for a lot of science,” he said.
In addition to gathering applicants from more states for next year’s Olympiad, Tailer has something else in mind to boost earth science education in America. In three years, the U.S. will host dozens of leading scientists when the IESO comes to Vermont.
“We’re bringing the world here to Vermont in 2014,” he said. “Vermont is one of the global leaders in community sustainability … this event is a way to showcase that.”
For students and interested community members that have questions, concerns or statements about the earth, earth systems or international sustainability, Tailer encourages them to send him letters or e-mails (at email@example.com), so that the team can bring local questions and comments to the world at the ISEO.
“This is a chance to engage the community of the planet,” he said.
Tailer considers Micklas one of team U.S.A.’s strongest representatives, calling him “a brilliant young scientist.”
Micklas is a high-caliber student, participates in academic clubs like Math League, and is even attempting to save Mount Abe money by converting computers to open-source software that is free to the school.
Tailer promised Micklas, a great student with incredible potential, that he would find a way to bring him to Italy. The only thing that stands in their way is money.
The federal funding that previously paid for the U.S. team’s trip to the IESO was cut three years ago. With hard financial times facing the Micklas family, this golden opportunity for team U.S.A.’s top youth scientist is in jeopardy.
Tailer said the IESO will be an unbeatable experience for Micklas.
“All of a sudden Kenny will have friends from 25 other countries,” he said. “He’ll meet physicists and geochemists on the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. I want Kenny to make friends globally and meet world-class scientists.”
Those who wish to help Kenny Micklas pay expenses to participate in the International Earth Science Olympiad may e-mail Tom and Beth Tailer at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Andrew Stein is at email@example.com.