Kenilworth student snags international grand prize

As the only American invited to compete in an international science competition, Jalen Scott, of Baton Rouge, wasn’t too disappointed when awards based on age groups and categories were announced and his name wasn’t called.

But there was another announcement coming — the grand prize.

Scott, an eighth-grader at Kenilworth Science and Technology Charter School, won the Wangari Maathai Special Award, the top prize in the Golden Climate International Environmental Project Olympiad, a competition in Nairobi, Kenya for 135 high school and middle school students from 31 countries. He received the award May 2, and it was announced locally on Thursday.

“My heart dropped. My legs turned into jelly,” Scott said. “Getting up out of my chair and going down the row to the stage, I stepped on everything on that row. I stepped on chairs, book sacks, jackets, and I almost fell going up to the stage. … I was just discombobulated.”

It’s an understandable reaction, even considering the acclaim Scott’s project has already received.

As a seventh-grader in 2013, Scott and Desirae Gardner, then a sixth-grader at Kenilworth, produced similar projects studying soil at 11 local schools, using a hand-held X-ray spectrometer provided by LSU associate professor David Weindorf, a soils specialist with the LSU AgCenter.

Scott found lead levels above U.S. Environmental Protection Agency screening limits at four of the schools; Gardner found elevated levels of arsenic at seven schools.

Assisted by LSU graduate students, their work was published in the academic journal Soil Horizons. It was the first time middle school students were published in the journal, according to the publication. They got to visit Washington, D.C., and meet U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, Sen. Mary Landrieu and Rep. Bill Cassidy.

“It was a high competition,” said Kenilworth science teacher Elkhan Akhundov, who joined Scott’s father, Sherman, on the trip with Jalen. “The projects were really high quality, but Jalen’s was the one that has actually proven itself, has been published. And he had a very good presentation. His presentation impressed the judges.”

The competition was Scott’s first opportunity to travel abroad and included trips to see some of Kenya’s wildlife, as well as meet students from around the world.

“There were a lot of people,” Scott said. “Everyone was interested in me because I was from America. I made a few friends. They were really, really nice people.”

The grand prize included a medal, plaque and a $350 award.