Contact: Linda Topoleski, 412-389-0410,

Kyra Harmanos, 412-281-2345,


Hillel Academy Students Named as Gold Medal Award Winners in National Competition at Walt Disney World®

Students Test Stones, Mulch, Rubber, Sand and Gravel to Develop the Safest, Cleanest Playground Surface


WALT DISNEY WORLD, FL — June 23, 2004 — Bright ideas, solid research and teamwork won four students from Hillel Academy in Fairfield, CT, a Gold Medal Award at the Christopher Columbus Awards, a nationwide program held here this week. Eighth-graders Yori Thau, Jay Estes, Jason Friedman and Michael Epstein, and their science teacher Karen Howell, competed against more than 1,200 students nationwide to win the Gold Medal Award.

Every year, more than 200,000 children are treated in emergency rooms for playground related injuries, 70% of which are caused by falls on tough surfaces. Statistics like these prompted this team to test and develop what they consider to be the safest and cleanest playground surface — recycled rubber. By dropping eggs, growing mold and conducting shoe invasion tests with different playground surfaces, the students determined that rubber would absorb the impact of falls, stay clean of mold and weeds, be most accessible to handicapped visitors, and be less likely to track into children's shoes and inside buildings.

The students researched the various surfaces through their own tests, data from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Handbook for Public Playground Safety and design experts. They plan to educate township and school officials about the benefits of recycled rubber to encourage them to renovate existing playground that currently have blacktop or other surfaces.

Gold Medal Winners — Fairfield, CT.
Left to right: Jason Friedman, Coach Karen Howell, Michael Epstein, Jay Estes and Yori Thau.


"In the near-term, we would like to improve the playground at our school by installing recycled rubber over the mulch surface that is there," the students said. "Ultimately, we hope to convince community leaders that recycled rubber is the way to go to improve safety at all playgrounds."

The team won an expense-paid trip to Walt Disney World, along with seven other finalist teams, to experience the science behind the thrills as part of the Christopher Columbus Academy. In addition, each of these team members will receive a U.S. Savings Bond.

Three other teams received awards at the national competition.

$25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant — Pottstown, PA Area Middle School Students — With nearly 10% of children in the United States allergic to peanuts and dyes, this team of four students from St Aloysius, Visitation of the Blessed Virgin Mary and the Wyndcroft School, developed their own handheld scanner system that shoppers can use to quickly and accurately read product labels to flag eight different allergens that go by up to 72 different names depending on the manufacturer. They received the competitionĖs top prize — the $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant — to turn their idea into a real product.

Gold Medal Award — Hawken School, Lyndhurst, OH — Concerned that a 12,000-year-old population of brook trout was endangered due to toxic runoff in the watershed, these students developed a plan to educate area residents about the consequences of their daily actions and to motivate them to change. As part of their education campaign, the students asked area residents to sign pledges to reduce point source pollution in their yards and neighborhoods, they tacked warning stickers on the drains alerting residents not to use the sewers as a dumping source and they educated residents about developing riparian buffer zones in their yards to contain the impact of fertilizers and other yard chemicals.

Judges' Award — A one-time award for addressing an emerging issue of critical importance: Childhood Obesity — Enterprise Charter School, Buffalo, NY — With childhood obesity on the rise to near epidemic proportions this team decided to take action. After surveying nearly 200 of their peers and finding that more than half have a sweet-tooth, they decided to develop a healthy and tasty cookie to replace the high-sugar snacks teens typically eat. To take their idea a step further, they packaged their cookie in a pyramid shaped wrapper that also encourages kids to exercise.

Health, Safety, the Environment Top Students' List of Concerns

The most pressing community issues among this yearĖs nearly 1,200 entries were health, the environment, and safety with special emphasis on the needs of people with disabilities.

Competition Attracts Teams of 'Everyday' Kids — Including an Unusually High Percentage of Girls and Minorities

More than half of the entrants to the Christopher Columbus Awards are girls, an unusually high number for a science competition, and a statistic that competition officials believe is linked to the teamwork aspect, which plays to a strength of middle-school-age girls. More than a fourth are from diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, statistics that are higher than those of most science competitions.

"In a competition like this, middle school students gain critical life skills and discover, to their absolute amazement, that they truly can make a difference in the world," said Robert J. Glovitz, chairman of the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation. "They've seen that if they have a workable idea, and present it clearly, that very often people will listen and encourage them."

National Panel of Judges

Judges have included nationally prominent scientists, journalists, teachers and community leaders who have worked with children. This year's panel included:

Greg Hale — Vice President, Design & Engineering and Regulatory Compliance, Walt Disney World

Dr. M. Ian Phillips — Vice President for Research & Professor, University of South Florida, Tampa, FL

Robert J. Glovitz — General Manager, EFI-ADS Communications, Inc., Scottsdale, AZ

Dr. Maria Lombardo — Educational Consultant, Rockville, MD

Rosalyn Queen Alonso — Former Chair, Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation, Flemington, WV

Eight finalist teams won an all-expense-paid trip to the Walt Disney World® Resort, where they competed in the Christopher Columbus Awards' National Championship Week, June 19-24. Rewards included U.S. Savings Bonds for Gold Medal Award winners. In addition, the Pottstown team will bring home the $25,000 Columbus Foundation Community Grant to help bring its idea to life in the community. The finalists also attended the Christopher Columbus Academy, a custom-designed educational program. Conducted by scientists, engineers and educators, the program reveals the science and technology behind the thrills and excitement of Epcot®.

For a complete list of finalists and their entries, visit

Positive Community Change

The Christopher Columbus Awards challenge teams of middle-school students to explore and discover opportunities for positive change in their communities using science and technology. The program is now in its eighth year and has attracted more than 12,000 students from diverse backgrounds all across the U.S. The program is sponsored by the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation with cooperation from the National Science Foundation and is endorsed by the National Middle School Association.

About the Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation

The Christopher Columbus Fellowship Foundation is an independent Federal government agency created by Congress in 1992 to encourage and support research, study and labor designed to produce new discoveries in all fields of endeavor for the benefit of mankind. The Foundation has established Frontiers of Discovery — Work in Process and Discover the Future programs that recognize "cutting edge" innovation, innovative ideas of AmericaĖs youth and honor teachers. These programs include the Frank Annunzio Award, Homeland Security Awards, Christopher Columbus Awards, National Gallery for America's Young Inventors and the Freida J. Riley Teacher Award. Please visit the Foundation's website at for more information on the programs it supports.

For more information on the Christopher Columbus Awards, call 1-800-291-6020 or visit