MIT-bound Paul Kalebu raises academic bar with nuclear physics, 'Code Day''

Todd Beamer senior Paul Kalebu. - Courtesy photo
Todd Beamer senior Paul Kalebu.
— image credit: Courtesy photo

Todd Beamer senior Paul Kalebu was given some worthy attention at the Federal Way Public Schools (FWPS) March 12 meeting. Beamer campus principal Randy Kaczor introduced the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT)-bound Kalebu, saying the young man is an exemplar student.

"Paul is an outstanding student, as you'll see in a moment," Kaczor said, "but in addition to his brain, Paul has found a way to be a varsity athlete in football and track. He's also secretary of the Todd Beamer High School Honor Society, as well as participating in the We Scare Hunger food drive this past fall. If I had a son, I'd want him to grow up to be like Paul Kalebu."

Kalebu touched on three recent projects/experiences he's been involved with in his academic life, ranging from his work with the Northwest Nuclear Consortium, to winning an award for an app that he and some University of Washington students designed as part of "Code Day," an annual computer programming event in Seattle.

"Last year, after football season, I had no more Friday night lights, so my physics teacher introduces me to this guy who lives here, who has a nuclear reactor in his basement," Kalebu said, referring to Federal Way resident Carl Greninger, and an associated after school club, the Northwest Nuclear Consortium.

"I go there, and he introduces me to this guy, and this guy is one of those cool people, but then he has this other side of him that's like the mad scientist you see on TV shows."

Kalebu continued, describing what this unique experience has brought to his life.

"We carry out experiments with the nuclear reactor, not just to play with it, but to study nuclear energy and understand how all the processes take place and how we could make nuclear fusion a more viable source of energy," he said. "And after that, what I find really cool about it is, his wife gives us cookies before we leave."

Another program Kalebu has been involved with recently is the MIT program Minority Introduction to Engineering and Science, or MITES.

"I thought it would be pretty cool to spend a summer at MIT, but I didn't really put much effort into it, because I really didn't have high expectations of myself," he said. "I thought MIT was a really prestigious place I was not built for. I talked to my dad, and he told me not to deny a place for myself, but let them deny me. Take the chance."

Kalebu said he applied and then had somewhat forgotten about his application. A few months later, he said, his mom came into his bedroom and told him he had received some mail from MIT.

"I opened it, and I'm like 'Wow, I got into the program, that's pretty cool," he said.

At MIT, Kalebu said he got a good sense of college life and the level of rigor that will be required for the fields he desires to be a part of: electrical engineering and computer science. He related a story of trying to do some of the homework he was given by himself, and discovering that, after laboring for two hours over the first problem of a six-problem set, he was going to need to learn how to reach out and work with others.

"I decided to seek others out for help, and 20 minutes later, we're on the third problem, and I'm like, 'Wow, that's pretty interesting,'" he said. "It gave me an appreciation for teamwork."

Finally, Kalebu was invited to participate in "Code Day," a computer programming festival for high school and college students. For Kalebu, being invited was cause for concern because he had no programming experience, he said.

"The first 20 minutes were really awkward for me because everybody is sitting there, writing programs on their computers," he said, "and I was just looking around, trying to figure out what I should do."

He and his team came up with an idea for a Twitter analytics tool they named "Tweet Fighter." The idea is to gauge the popularity of a certain topic on Twitter, he said, and then have it "fight" against another popular topic. The "fight" is carried out by graphic representations, with the more popular topic eventually winning out.

"We happened to win the contest, which I was pretty happy about," Kalebu said. "What I learned from this is, if you don't try, you don't find out what you can do."


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