The Last Dance
"How would you play Ping-Pong on the moon?"
That question may seem more pure whimsy than an effort to test raw scientific thinking. But it is the kind of question put to students in the dizzying final round of the Westinghouse contest, and it suggests the flavor of that event. The final round is part science fair, part Sphinx-like riddle, part whirlwind tour, part beauty contest, and part graduation exercise, and it is all played out in five hurly-burly days in the nation's capital.
Those who have made it to the top forty have finished in the money. They are designated winners, and most colleges would be so pleased to get a winner they would not make picky distinctions between finishing fourth and twenty-fourth. The honored students should be able to relax and savor the flighty, eccentric questions of the judges with a sense of humor.
But, for students at this level of play, finishing in the top forty may not be enough. So there is a fevered race for first place and for the other top-ten spots, a race that is fueled, quite baldly in some cases, by money. After all, thirty students will receive scholarships of $1,000 apiece, but ten others will receive prizes ranging from $10,000 to $40,000, a considerable leap in value. Four will get scholarships of $10,000, three will receive $15,000 each, and the top three will receive $20,000, $30,000 and $40,000. Since tuition, room, and board at the nation's very best colleges cost more than $80,000 for four years, even the top Westinghouse scholarship will buy only half a college education. But that is still a lot, and the cachet of being one of the forty Westinghouse winners, and particularly finishing among the leaders, can unlock thousands of other scholarship dollars, so intense is the competition among colleges