Intel science awards and the rise of Silicon Valley

Intel Science Talent Search first place winners (left to right) Noah Golowich (Mass.), Andrew Jin (Calif.) and Michael Winer (Md.)
Source: Chris Ayers | Intel
Intel Science Talent Search first place winners (left to right) Noah Golowich (Mass.), Andrew Jin (Calif.) and Michael Winer (Md.)

America's wealth and intellectual center has been shifting from the Northeast to the West for years now. We can all see that when we look at companies like Apple and Google becoming more valuable and even more influential than many Wall Street banks. From real estate prices to hefty bonus payments, Silicon Valley has become the new Wall Street. But this isn't just about stock valuations and hot consumer tech trends. It goes much deeper than that and the latest results from America's most prestigious high school academic competition prove it.

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It's true that the Intel Science Talent Search is a science-only competition, but no other contest for high school students across the country in any subject comes close to its prominence and longevity. It was originally known as the Westinghouse Science Talent Search for its first 57 years before Intel took over the sponsorship in 1998. But no matter the name, the search has always attracted fierce competition and hefty financial prizes. No fewer than eight future Nobel Prize winners have been finalists or semifinalists. And Intel boosted the stakes this year by drastically increasing the total prize money to $1.6 million.

The award winners have also served as a closely-watched data point for those who like to chart the progress of different ethnic groups in American society. In the earlier years of the award, Jewish-Americans dominated the winners circle. Then, Asian-Americans began to win the lion's share. Indian-Americans have recently made a significant jump into the list of annual finalists. When you start to see a particular ethnicity well-represented in the Intel awards list, you know that demographic group has "made it" in America.

But until the last few years, one constant remained: just about all the semi-finalists and finalists every year came from high schools in the Northeast. Sixteen of the all-time top 20 "feeder high schools" hail from the New York City-to-Washington D.C. metro areas. Like the world of finance, the world of young scientific talent and great secondary school science education was basically a New York thing.

That is, until now. A whopping nine of the 40 finalists for this year's awards hail from Silicon Valley high schools. That's the most ever in the 73-year history of the award. And one of the three 1st prize winners announced last night, each of whom took home a $150,000 cash prize, was Andrew Jin of San Jose's Harker School. Incidentally, two other finalists this year hailed from the very same Harker School.

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But just as it was when the majority of the winners of this competition were Jewish kids living in Brooklyn and the Bronx, this is more about family values and upbringing than it is about elite high school science programs. The world's top science and tech talent is flowing into Silicon Valley more than ever before, and those talented people are raising children and encouraging and cherishing their pursuit of scientific knowledge. And the shift of those kinds of families from East to West is showing its potential for real longevity now that the talent and drive for success has clearly been passed on to a new generation in the greater Bay Area.

Yes, a bigger number of finalists still come from the Northeast. Twelve of the 40 were from the greater New York area alone. But there was a time not so long ago when the New York region would be home to more like 25-30 of the 40 finalists. Another point to remember is that this really is something of a zero sum shift. The areas of the country that are not in the New York, D.C., or Silicon Valley regions aren't seeing consistent representation in these awards. One notable exception is the Dallas-area Texas Academy of Mathematics and Science, which has historically been a top 10 feeder to the Intel awards and had one finalist this year too. But as much as we hear about income inequality in this country, perhaps we should also focus on geographic inequality, at least when it comes to the scientific and technical prowess that very often leads to higher incomes in the first place.

And in that context, the new "shining city on the hill" is clear. I have seen the future America, and the children of Silicon Valley are it.

Commentary by Jake Novak, supervising producer of "Power Lunch." Follow him on Twitter @jakejakeny.