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Google’s golden ticket: Freshman scores big with her art in contest

Becca Olene’s artwork has graced the front of the family fridge and the walls of her Chaska school. Next week, the 14-year-old’s colored-pencil illustration may anchor Google’s home page.

In a quest for a 24-hour replacement to the search engine’s home page icon, which changes to commemorate holidays and special events, Google is hosting a Doodle 4 Google Competition among U.S. residents ages 5 to 18. Google has hosted the competition in England and Australia before, but this marks the first American contest of the sort.

More than 16,000 students submitted their artwork, and Google selected 400 finalists, picking eight from each state, and two from each age bracket. Then the web powerhouse narrowed it down to 40 regional finalists. That’s when Becca got the call that sent her jumping: She had made the cut, landing among an elite 0.2 percent of contestants.

Now she’s packing for an award ceremony at the Googleplex in Mountain View, Calif., a complimentary trip that is akin to a golden ticket inside Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. There the national winner will be announced May 21, and his or her art will “go live” on Google’s homepage May 22.

Becca heard about the competition from a friend and immediately began brainstorming. “I really like art and I thought I might have a chance with this,” the Carver resident said. She considered the given theme, “What if….?”, a question Google says is designed to inspire young people to see (and illustrate) the world not as it is, but as it may be.

Initially, Becca considered a fantasy theme, but then ruled it out for being too common. She kicked around a few more ideas, and then the rainforest concept tumbled into her mind. It was a good fit for the environmentally conscious animal lover who owns two pet chinchillas.

Next, she examined some tropical animals on — where else? — Google images. Then she set pencil to paper.

Perfecting the shape of Toucan was the hardest part, but when she arrived at the tiger, which represents the second “o” in Google, her pencil glided with ease. Tigers happen to be one of Becca’s fortés.

From the first sketches to the final shading, the entire drawing took only three hours.

Then she wrote a brief explanation of her theme: “What if Rainforests were saved? In the future, what if there were rainforests everywhere? What if people could work together to preserve and restore nature instead of destroying it? The world’s rainforests are shrinking and many species have lost their habitat because of humans. What if we could change this?”

Vote for the toucan

Now Becca’s campaigning for online votes, which will help determine the national winner. She created a Facebook group that has garnered 160 members so far and has posted a link to the contest on her MySpace account. Her mom, Hollie, has sent out a few mass emails soliciting votes, and an administrator at Pioneer Ridge Freshmen Center in Chaska made an announcement over the PA system.

“People I don’t normally talk to at school have been voting and telling me about it,” Becca said. Though she’s a shy middle child who prefers Guitar Hero to public speaking, she’s enjoying the attention. “I like it,” she acknowledged.

Becca Olene
Photo courtesy of the Olene Family
Becca Olene

The voting period began Monday and ends May 18. During that time, Becca’s illustration is featured alongside the other regional finalists in a Google gallery. She scouted out the competition and was most impressed by an Arkansas girl who asked, “What if…everything I drew came to life?” But over all, she wasn’t too intimidated. “I think I have a pretty good chance.”

The winner will receive a $10,000 college scholarship, and his or her school will receive a $25,000 grant toward the establishment or enhancement of a computer lab.

To win, and have her art viewed by some 4 million people — and likely more, given the buzz the competition is generating — would mark a huge leap from the last competition Becca entered: a coloring contest at Cooper’s Grocery Store in Chaska.

Her classmates recognized her artistic talent long ago. In second grade during recess, they would ask her for drawings. “Mainly mermaids and Pokemon,” she said. 

Mutual benefits

Now Becca is old enough to recognize the value of such an honor. “I think it would look good on a college application.”

The freshman is brainy and well-rounded, a member of the Knowledge Bowl who earned straight A’s last quarter, but drawing is her chief passion and her career aspiration.

Google may appear altruistic by flying 40 youngsters to Mountain View, but it has plenty to gain from Doodle 4 Google: increased web traffic, good will and an opportunity to gain traction in thousands of schools, which were required to formally register in order to submit their students’ art work.

It’s also a way to build Google love and loyalty among young people while conducting something of a talent search. Although, it may be a while before Google needs to replace its current doodler: Dennis Hwang is only 29.

You can vote for Becca here by clicking on the Grades 7-9 button and then clicking on Region 5.

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