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Riverhead sixth grader invited to National Youth Leadership Forum


Sean Donohue can complete a Rubik’s Cube in 39 seconds, the fastest of anyone in his fifth-grade class last year at Pulaski Street Elementary School.

The 11-year-old, now a sixth-grader, can also use the cube to create different patterns — flowers, checkers, stripes and more —in a matter of seconds.

Last year, Sean, who taught himself the skill by spending hours researching patterns and techniques on YouTube, used to challenge his peers at lunchtime. Kids would also stop by his classroom throughout the day, asking him to solve their cubes — something that caught the eye of his fifth-grade teacher, Claire Belmonte.

It was Sean’s clear interest in mastering Rubik’s Cubes, among other things, that led Ms. Belmonte to nominate him for the National Youth Leadership Forum in June.

The forum, held at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, gives students the chance to nurture their Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) skills over a six-day period. Students in grades 6-8 must be nominated; those selected to attend are considered “forward-thinking middle school students who will evolve into our next generation of innovators, engineers, doctors, software developers, mathematicians, and physicists,” according to the National Youth Leadership Forum’s website.

Sean, who didn’t know he had been nominated, said he was surprised to receive an acceptance letter.

“I don’t think I was the best in the class, but I always tried my best,” he said.

To do this, Sean focuses on a subject and tries to learn everything he can about it.

“When he gets into stuff he always has to learn more about it,” his mother, Laura, said. “Like who created it, what championships there are and who the world record-holder is.”

Like many children his age, he enjoys “flipping,” a new craze in which kids flip a filled plastic water bottle and try make it land standing up.

Rather than just flipping and hoping for the best, Sean spends his free time figuring out which plastic bottles work best and how much water will give him the outcome he’s looking for. His research has helped him become one of the best flippers in his class.

“I flipped it nine times in a row once,” he said. “Everybody’s jaws dropped!”

After watching the film “Unstoppable,” Sean became interested in trains – building tracks and creating stop-motion movies he uploads on a YouTube channel.

It’s his interest in all these subjects and more — coding, building robots out of a metal scrap pile at his house and creating different items using Legos — that makes Sean so excited to attend the forum.

Activities he looks forward to include creating a mobile app, building a robot, working on a mission to Mars project, learning ambulatory medicine and listening to a keynote speech by a NASA astronaut.

“It hits all his interests,” Sean’s mother said. “And I love that because every kid is different, so they all have opportunities.”

Photo caption: Sean Donohue, 11, works on solving a Rubik’s Cube in his Riverhead home Monday. (Credit: Nicole Smith)

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