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Paschal High science whiz, who will graduate at 16, mentors younger students

04/09/2013 11:44 PM

04/10/2013 1:11 PM

FORT WORTH -- When Dominic J. Yurk was in kindergarten, his classmates were learning the alphabet but he could already read 100-page books and multiply numbers.

He went on to skip first and fifth grade, entering Paschal High School at age 12, and racking up titles and awards in science competitions across Texas. Now a 16-year-old senior, Dominic plans to attend the California Institute of Technology in the fall to study computer science and physics. He is ranked sixth in his graduating class.

And in addition to his own academic achievement, Dominic enjoys mentoring other students in the hope of sparking the same love of learning, he said.

"Throughout high school, I have pursued my passion to better my schools in return for the opportunities they have given me," he said. "My goal is not only to mentor and excite younger students, but to create a culture of mentorship such that those students will support others in the future."

When Dominic arrived at Paschal High, the science club had a handful of members, who didn't always make it to meetings. The club's teacher sponsor, Andrew Brinker, credits Dominic with introducing the club to several high-level competitions to challenge members.

Now the club's president, Dominic teaches his peers in physics, chemistry and biology. Last week, he stood at a classroom Promethean board, writing out symbols, numbers and equations to help prepare the team for the upcoming Physics Bowl competition.

A Paschal team led by Dominic is headed to Washington, D.C., this month after winning the right to compete in the U.S. Department of Energy National Science Bowl. Teens answer questions about math and science in a style similar to the TV game show Jeopardy!

In individual competition in February, Dominic took first place in the physics and astronomy division at the Fort Worth Regional Science and Engineering Fair. His project, called "Problem Solving with Chaos," included research on how to improve a machine called a tokamak.

In March, he was named second place, grand champion, at the Exxon Mobil Texas State Science and Engineering Fair in San Antonio for the chaos theory project. He advances to an international competition in Phoenix in May.

Last month, he had the highest score in Texas at a University Interscholastic League district science competition and was one question away from a perfect score, Brinker said.

And for the third straight year, he is the state champion in physics in the Texas Math and Science Coaches Association's state science competition.

Leader and volunteer

People who know Dominic say he is equally comfortable working alongside scholars, interacting with older classmates and tutoring students who are struggling with basic math and science.

"I don't know if that's a natural skill or something you practice," he said. "It really helps to have a good understanding of what you're trying to teach, where it comes from."

As a freshman, Dominic launched a mentoring program at McLean Middle School, teaching students about science and engineering in the Future City program, in which students design and build a model city and present it to judges. As a McLean student, his team took fifth place in the 2009 national finals in Washington, D.C.

He credits the volunteer experience with helping him learn to explain complex concepts in layman's terms. Those social skills are important for someone headed into a career in science, said Michelle Shinn, senior staff scientist at the Jefferson Laboratory, one of 17 national laboratories funded by the U.S. Department of Energy.

Dominic worked with Shinn on a 2011 summer internship program that focused on optics and lasers.

"Scientists tend to be introverted. The reality of the situation is, if you're going to get into science, you're not going to do it alone. That's the reality of science in the 21st century, is that you do things collaboratively," Shinn said in a telephone interview. "In 1985 all we had for quick communications is a fax machine. Now we have Facebook or Skype so it's even more important to be able to collaborate and speak and express yourself."

As a freshman, Dominic jumped ahead and tackled the Advanced Placement biology book while taking a lower-level class.

"He read this giant 1,200-page book. By the end of the year, he knew more biology than me. Basically I've been trying to beat him in biology. We're pretty close," Brinker said. "It's been hard to challenge him. He is seriously in it for the knowledge, which is refreshing. A lot of kids are not. They're just in it for the GPA."

Dominic earned the highest score on college-level Advanced Placement exams in 10 subjects. He aced the environmental science test without having taken the class; he just read the textbook, Brinker said.

Although students with high scores on the exams can usually get college credit, that is not the case at Cal Tech. Students there take placement tests to determine what level of classes to take.

"He wants to get the full undergraduate experience," said Jeff Yurk, Dominic's father. "He's very mature for his age. He's got his act together. To him, he's not in a rush."

Shinn called Dominic's computer programming skills "phenomenal," and adds that he showed great initiative, reading all the preparation materials she sent before he arrived for the internship and more.

"That's what gives me a lot of excitement and hope. People talk about the United States in science and where we're going," Shinn said. "But I think, our brilliant students like Dominic, there is nothing like them."

Jessamy Brown, 817-390-7326

Twitter: @jessamybrown

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