Allan Weis made his millions selling a way to speed up the Internet.Now he spends his time encouraging pupils across the world to compete on the information superhighway. Mary Hampshire reports
When Kenyan teenager Richard Taylor won a global Internet competition, his government thought it must be a hoax - his village has no reliable connection to the web.
But they had not reckoned on Richard's determination. His father used to drive him an hour each way along pot-holed roads to a cybercafe in Nairobi so he could send his work on genetic engineering and cloning to his two teammates in Canada.
Richard, 18, a Canadian who has lived most of his life in Kenya, had to power his computer by electric generator as his village, Kijabe, does not have reliableelectricity lines.
His teammates completed the web pages on their school computers. Their efforts paid off - they were among 98 finalists out of 2,300 entrants from around the world to take part in the ThinkQuest Internet Challenge. Their reward was a trip to Los Angeles for the awards ceremony.
"We had a few problems trying to get him out of the country," says ThinkQuest founder Allan Weis. "At first the Kenyan government didn't want to grant him a visa. Then, when it was agreed, the US embassy was bombed in Nairobi. So we flew him to Canada and he made it from there."
About 50,000 teachers and pupils - aged 12 to 19 - from more than 70 countries have created 1,500 websites since ThinkQuest set up the competition in 1996. The annual contest, which costs pound;3.2 million a year to run, has entrants from far flung corners of Russia and Africa, home schools in Alaska that can be 60 miles from the nearest town, remote islands in the Atlanticand South Pacific, as well as across Europe, Australia andthe United States.
Topics include the physics of sound and how it is perceived, the Chernobyl disaster, Shakespeare, Africa, death, the Indian settlements of Caminos Reales, volcanoes, Cuba and the lessons of war. Prizes, worth more than pound;1.3 million, feed back into education in the form of scholarships of up to pound;13,000 per student or school.
Weis, 60, an Internet expert, set up ThinkQuest with some of the pound;23 million he made selling new technology to the Internet company America Online in 1990.
"If you've been lucky in life, you have an obligation to put something back. And I don't mean writing a cheque. That's the easy way," Weis says in his down-to-earth and softly-spoken manner. "If you give time, energy, contacts and expertise, then maybe you can make a difference."
A former vice-president of IBM, he bankrolls the project through his non-profit organisation, Advanced Network amp; Services.
The ThinkQuest Library, where pupils' work is posted for 10 years, is one of the largest educational resources on the Internet, boasting three million hits a day. It has even been used as a teaching aid by corporations, the US Air Force Academy and the US Department of Defense.
Weis's motivation for ThinkQuest is that he wants to help children master the Internet, inspiring them to learn through practical work rather than just listening. But he also wants to close educational gaps by forging links between children from different socio-economic backgrounds.
"The information on the Internet is mind-boggling," he says. "You can pull up pictures of Earth taken from a space shuttle. You can tap into libaries around the world. It's becoming ever more sophisticated, which is great if you have access to it. But if you don't, you're at risk of being left behind.
"We had a kid who lives on Tangier Island, Virginia," says Weis. "Only 650 people live there and there's one computer based at the school. This kid washed the school floors from 6am until 7am every day so that he could get access to it.
"When he won a prize, it was the first time he'd left the island. The hotel in Los Angeles was the biggest building he'd ever seen.
"He shucked clams (used a clam knife to open them and extract the meat) part-time to make a living. Now he has a chance to go to college with the scholarship he won. It has really changed his life."
To enter the ThinkQuest challenge, pupils work in groups of two or three, making contact bye-mail. There are five categories: arts and literature, sports and health, science and maths, social sciences and interdisciplinary. Projects are judged on educational value, entry quality, growth potential and entry usage. There are extra points for projects if there are students on the team with limited access to technology.
Work takes place outside school hours with the help of a coach, a teacher. But teams are also given online technical support in building web pages over eight months, and there is a multilingual help desk for extra guidance. The help desks are run by 42 national partners - non-profit organisations such as such as government departments and universities - which support and fund ThinkQuest by distributing materials, running workshops for teachers and students, maintaining a website in the local language and representing ThinkQuest at educational and technology conferences.
"This is much more than a competition," says Weis. "It encourages kids to collaborate, overcome obstacles, teach themselves and one another technology and an academic subject, and follow an idea through - like you have to in industry."
ThinkQuest - which has received several awards including the 1997 Thomas Edison Award for Education in the New Millennium - is also investing in technology in schools. For example, in India, one entrant teamed up with students from the Netherlands and the United States. "He was in a school of 2,000 with no computers. But he was able to work from his computer at home," Weis says.
"When the head of the school found out he was a finalist, he called the boy to his office. He wanted to know about ThinkQuest and whether it was worth having computers. Now the school has computers and access to the Internet."
One ThinkQuest website looks at the concept of youth courts in Illinois, where teenage defendants are judged and sentenced by their peers. As a result of the website, the idea was picked up in Mexico and Japan, and officials have travelled to the United States to discuss it with the pupils. Other US states have also adopted youth courts as a result of seeing the site. "These kids touched on a screaming need," Weis says. "Their work has had a profound social impact."
A group from Texas, California and Germany created the award-winning site Egyptworld, which is a virutal museum using pictures, text and a game to explain the explorations of the pyramids and Egyptian art. It provides classroom tools for teachers and a tourist centre with guides, maps and contacts for potential visitors. The group was invited to Cairo to address 600 delegates including the ministry of education and industry.
Weis, a self-made man born and raised in Queens, New York City, was disaffected during his youth, which he says partly explains why he has attempted to engage students in an inventive way.
"At high school I graduated in the bottom 10 in a class of 500," he admits. "I was bored of reading textbooks. I didn't study or always show up for lessons.
"Teachers can know a subject well. But they don't always know how to communicate it in an interesting and fun way."
Weis's dormant talent emerged after he joined IBM as a computer operator in 1960. During his 30 years with the firm, he worked his way up to vice-president of engineering and scientific computing, spent 15 years developing various IBM divisions worldwide and in 1980 earned a Masters degree from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He made his millions by finding a way to increase dramatically the speed at which the Internet calls up information.
He is clearly passionate about his new vocation. "It's the kids that keep me going, reading their letters and listening to their stories. I've had letters from at risk kids who've had no sense of self-worth, who've not been that interested in education, but ThinkQuest has got them motivated.
"There was a girl in Denver. Her drug-addict mother used to chain her to a bedroom radiator and sell her for prostitution," he says. "Well, her teacher got her involved in ThinkQuest and she handled Photoshop and created pages, and realised that if she could do that maybe she could accomplish other things.
"She didn't make the finals but she still achieved something. ThinkQuest's not just for the brightest kids. A lot of teachers are using it to help kids move beyond where they are."
www.thinkquest.orgThinkQuest is looking for national partners to encourage participation by UK students. TelephoneAndrea Papa on 00 1 914 765 1134. The deadline this year is August 16. Judging takes place on November 20-22 in Los Angeles.