“Kids need a challenge outside of the classroom,” says Erika Ebbel, who won a grand prize from the Intel ISEF in 1997 and who is founder and CEO of the WhizKids Foundation, which has helped more than 3,000 high schoolers get involved in science.

Ebbel was also a winner of Intel’s annual talent search, which recognizes the 40 most accomplished young scientists and engineers and awards them huge cash and scholarship prizes -- up to $100,000 each. She used her winnings to get a degree in chemistry from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Along the way, she was, incidentally, also crowned Miss Massachusetts.

Ebbel won her Intel ISEF prize for proving that simple herbs could be used to treat the virus that causes cold sores. But she says she couldn’t have won without the help of the scientists she worked with at Genentech and the United States Department of Agriculture. It was an experience unlike anything she’d had in the classroom.

“One of the reasons I’m still in science,” says Ebbel, who is on her way to earning a PhD in analytical biochemistry at the Boston University School of Medicine, “is that science came to life for me [during the ¬competitions].”

Competitions such as Intel ISEF can bring science to life for the rest of us, too, if we can just get past the brain-tangling knot-theory stuff. In a sense, these contests are America’s Got Talent, only with engineering instead of juggling and with academic judges instead of David Hasselhoff. But like a game show, there are prizes -- Intel and its nonprofit partner, the Society for Science & the Public, award about $4 million in cash and scholarships every year. This year, there was audience input as well: A People’s Choice Award was handed out to one lucky entrant.