Students at Virginia’s Thomas Jefferson High School for School & Technology need no convincing that it pays to be technologically savvy. Kids from that science magnet school near Washington, D.C., raked in nearly $120,000 worth of prizes on Nov. 23, when they took top honors in the annual ThinkQuest Awards.

Advanced Network and Services Inc., a company instrumental in creating the technical backbone of the internet, doled out more than $1.2 million in scholarships and prizes to 34 teams of students during its ThinkQuest Awards this year–and students from Thomas Jefferson High School claimed nearly 10 percent of the winnings.

The contest, open to K-12 students worldwide, honored the top student web site designs in each of ten categories. Of more than 2,000 teams that entered, some from as far away as Singapore and Ivory Coast, 34 made the finals.

Turning in the best showing by any one school, Thomas Jefferson fielded four teams that made the contest’s final cut, allowing seven students to take an all-expense paid trip to Los Angeles to show off their projects.

“Jefferson is some school,” said Allan Weiss, president and CEO of Advanced Network and Services Inc.

“The teams, the teachers, and the parents all should be very proud.”

Donald Hyatt and Phyllis Rittman, upper-level computer science teachers at the school, served as coaches for the winning teams.

“I feel very fortunate having so many talented students,” Hyatt said. “I helped the students line up a team, but they really did all the work.”

Still, the coaches deserve much of the credit for the school’s tremendous success. Hyatt said he donated his share of the winnings to the school to help pay for more computer equipment. In all, the school itself snagged $18,000 in prize money from the ThinkQuest contest.

Grand prize winners

The grand prize winners included two teens who are getting to be old hands at winning international web site design awards.

Alex Kulesza and David Green–who took home $15,000 each in scholarship money for their web site design two years ago–hit the big time at the contest this year, beating out 6,000 other students from 64 countries and pocketing $25,000 apiece to put towards college.

This year, the juniors worked with a third student, Granite Christopher, from Kenai, Alaska. The three used eMail to communicate.

In addition to the $25,000 scholarships, each student also was awarded $2,500 in cash.

Their grand prize winner was the “Soundry,” a web site that uses simple animation and interactive tools to demonstrate the physics of sound and how people capture and interpret it. Judges gushed over the entry, calling it a site “without peers” in the field.

“It’s simple and elegant,” Weiss told the Washington Post. “Not only did they do a wonderful job in terms of building a great technology, but the content is spectacular and the way the subject is taught is just wonderful.”

When the time came to give out the awards, Kulesza and Green said, the judges decided to have a bit of fun with them: They were told to stay in their seats as other finalists mounted the stage.

“They said there was a problem with our site and that we weren’t allowed to go on stage,” said Green, 16.

“We said, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?'” recalled 16-year-old Kulesza. “I was trying to figure out what could have gone wrong.”

But minutes later they were announced the winners.

Other Jefferson entries included “Totally Tessellated,” a site about the geometric art made popular by Dutch artist M.C. Escher; “Driving Under the Influence,” a site that educates students about the dangers of drunken driving; and “Energy Matters,” which features an interactive game in which players juggle scant resources to manage a country.

More on ThinkQuest

Nearly 1,000 student-created web sites–each communicating knowledge on a specific subject, such as the exploration of Mars or the physics of baseball–have become part of ThinkQuest’s master site since the contest’s inception three years ago. The competition gives students an educational and highly motivating opportunity to hone their academic and technical skills.

“We’re exceptionally grateful to Al Weiss for sponsoring this contest,” Hyatt said. “He’s invested more than $5 million in this competition so far, and it’s become a repository for great educational sites on the web.”

On Oct. 29, ThinkQuest announced a competition for teachers as well. Called ThinkQuest for Tomorrow’s Teachers, the initiative offers $500,000 in prize money to teams of K-12 teachers, prospective teachers, and college faculty to build content-rich web sites for use in classrooms and teacher education programs.

To view the winners and other entries of this year’s student contest, visit the ThinkQuest web site. From there, click on “Library of entries.” More information about ThinkQuest for Tomorrow’s Teachers is available on the site as well.

Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology