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Students take aim at global problems

The Global Challenge teams up US and Asian students to solve real-life issues.

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Not even old enough to drive, Michael Gibson already had his dream car in mind. But the Stowe High School student wasn't thinking about whether a Porsche or a BMW would better handle Vermont's deliciously twisty back roads at unmentionable speeds. Nope, his saucy set of wheels would have one purpose: to help mitigate global climate change.

To be fair, Michael had some added incentive. He, together with three partners – one from the US and two from China – had entered the Global Challenge contest, a locally founded initiative to improve America's math and science capabilities.

Over the course of the past school year, the group developed a 30-page business proposal for a car with an engine on each wheel, which would reduce friction and improve efficiency. The cross-cultural effort paid off. In July, the team members were each awarded a $2,500 college scholarship.

"There were times when you were, like, uh, I don't know about this – there's so much to do," Michael recalls. But then his team learned that real engineers were working on a similar model. "We thought, 'Hey, that wasn't so dumb!' "

In a climate of troubling indicators foreshadowing a decline in US competitiveness – from international testing comparisons to the low cost of skilled labor in Asia – the Global Challenge stems from a refreshing premise: America does have the tools to compete in an increasingly borderless and competitive world. And one way to cultivate those resources is to give high school students a more compelling opportunity to engage with science and math than is offered by, say, the boring chemistry teacher in the movie "Ferris Bueller's Day Off."

The need for that kind of program struck Vermont-based management consultant Craig DeLuca in 2005. Over the course of a long weekend, he read Tom Friedman's tome on globalization, "The World is Flat"; a client of his decided to outsource the manufacturing and design components of its operation; and his local school board proposed postponing the purchase of new science textbooks because of budget constraints.

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