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PC World

Surf your way into college

June 4, 1999
Web posted at: 10:41 a.m. EDT (1441 GMT)

by Jennifer Peltz

(IDG) -- Derek Gilbert used Lexis-Nexis, the giant online library of articles from newspapers and other publications, for the first time last month. Now he's using his Lexis-Nexis skills to send himself to college.

Gilbert hopes his knack for online research will net him a full scholarship to Florida State University. The Columbus, Georgia, high-school student and his partner Isiah Harper are among five teams competing for the prize--one of a small number of scholarships emerging nationwide to reward and court students with Internet expertise.

And Gilbert has a lot on the line. His father died in April, leaving Gilbert to finance college on his own.

"Given my incredible situation now, being left unprepared for the total cost of college and all," he says, winning "would mean the opportunity to go to a real university, in place of either going to a junior college or not going to an institution of higher education at all."

He and Harper will have 75 minutes to answer 40 questions designed to make them search efficiently for information and formulate an answer based on their results. Previous rounds, which narrowed 1200 teams to 5, included questions like: "What is twice the distance from the center of the earth to the center of the moon?"

As finalist Jonathan Cohen explains, "It's not just going to Yahoo and typing in a word."

Still, the New Jersey senior adds, other students "had to get straight A's all through high school to get scholarships as big as this."

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Readin', writin', and surfin'

Such contests highlight how quickly online skills have made their way into the academic mainstream.

"It's like any other talent, whether it be music or art or science or athletics," said Timothy McDonough, a spokesperson for the American Council on Education, a group of 1800 colleges and universities. "Institutions are trying to find a mix of students ... [and the Web] is very much a part of the learning environment now."

Plenty of prizes

Phillip Greenspun is trying to find teenagers "who can contribute to an interesting and useful Internet future," and he's ready to spend nearly $20,000 on them.

Greenspun runs ArsDigita, a Massachusetts company that creates Web programs that take credit-card orders, customize information according to a visitor's Zip code, or perform other functions. The company's charitable arm started offering awards to young programmers with useful and "tasteful" Web sites this year. The top prize, to be announced June 25, is $10,000--and access to ArsDigita's advanced equipment.

Finalist Yiannis Volos, says he's already won what he wanted--a chance "to get recognized by people of real significance and grab a unique opportunity to meet them."

Volos, an 18-year-old from Cyprus, submitted a Web site with programs to organize friends' addresses, library books, and other information. Other finalist entries range from a searchable community-college events calendar to a simulation game that puts the user in President Lyndon Johnson's shoes during the Vietnam War.

Teaming up on the Net

In the last three years another Web-site contest, ThinkQuest, has seen submissions on subjects from sound to Shakespeare to programming languages, founder Allan Weis says. This year's overall winners, middle-school students from Vidor, Texas, created a site about origami.

Weis runs Advanced Network & Services, an early Internet player. He started the competition because he'd found "nothing that took advantage of all of the power that the Internet could have" to teach 11- to 19-year-olds.

"What I wanted to do was really harness the energy and imagination of kids from different schools working in teams," he says. "Everybody brings their skill to the table, so you don't have to be a computer nerd to be a winner."

Scholarships by niche

Although the field of online scholarships isn't large, it's already somewhat specialized.

Accounting.Net gives scholarships to accounting students who can explain how the Internet has changed the profession. The Chicago Tribune recognizes local students who create impressive Web sites for nonprofit organizations. And the Technology Association of Georgia honors Web sites by and about Georgia high-school students.

But new-media prizes are old news to SmithKline Beecham, the maker of Vivarin caffeine pills. The company started rewarding innovative Web sites with $10,000 scholarships in 1995, when the Web was just becoming popular outside computer-science circles.

The awards were stopped after only a year.

"The Internet hit so fast that what was new and unique one year became just so terribly old-hat the next year," scholarship spokesperson Chris Clark explains. "Nowadays, college students are starting Internet companies with valuations in the billions of dollars. So we feel a little silly saying, 'Show us your cool home page.'"

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ArsDigita Prize
Florida State University Online Scholar Challenge
Web Challenge '99 (Technology Association of Georgia)
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