I recently went to a special screening of National Geographic’s Science Fair. Filmmakers follow nine high school students from around the globe as they compete at an international science fair. Facing off against 1,700 of the smartest teens from 78 countries, only one will be named Best in Fair.
The film, from Fusion and Muck Media and directed by the DuPont Award-winning and Emmy-nominated documentary filmmaking team Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, offers a front seat to the victories, defeats and motivations of an incredible group of young men and women who are on a path to change their lives, and the world, through science.
Long before the director, Christina Costantini was an investigative journalist, she describes herself as “a science fair nerd.” As a freshman in high school, she placed fourth and it changed her life forever. Her knowledge and experience participating in science fairs brings depth and an inside look at the young people who compete in science fairs. There is no one type of student who represents these passionate teens and this documentary follows nine individual students chasing a dream.
After the film there was a Q&A with high school science teacher and documentary subject Dr. Serena McCalla. Dr. McCalla, one of the student mentors featured in Science Fair, is a research teacher from Long Island. Known for her demanding, in-your-face style, she transformed her team of young students from Jericho High School—most of whom speak English as a second language—into one of the best science fair teams in the world. In an ultra-competitive setting where it is remarkable for any high school to have one or two students qualify for Intel ISEF, Dr. McCalla had nine. Dr. McCalla is capped at ten participants at ISEF and this year her goal is to bring all ten students to the competition. Her program consists of 60-120 tenth through twelfth graders. She told the audience that this international competition that has been described as “the Olympics of Science Fairs,” is 50% Science and 50% Sell. For the past ten years she has been the research director she has sent more than 70 students to Intel and has built a network and community among all her students who get back together annual to share insights, help each other with jobs, research, and make connections. She dedicates her life to the young people she works with and nurtures their interests. She notes that one day, one of her students will win the Nobel Peace Prize.
Competing in a science fair is not just a resume builder or a ticket to an Ivy League College, but a passion for the students presented in the documentary. At the beginning of filming, the directors were following 60 students and over the course of the year and in the documentary highlight nine. In order to qualify for Intel, ISEF, students need to compete and win in state and local affiliate fairs. Not only does one have to have a project that impacts the world or a global problem in some way, you also need to be able to articulate the project and your passion in a graphically pleasing way. Your display boards are an extension of yourself and must sell your research and data before the judges even interview you. Then, if you are a finalist, you spend hours being interviewed by all different scientists and researchers who are judging 1,700 projects.
What is going to make your stand out? Your presentation, your data, and how well you are able to communicate your passion to the judges. Intel ISEF finalists compete on average $4 million in awards and prizes and are judged on their creative ability and scientific thought, as well as the thoroughness, skill, and clarity shown in their projects.
The Gordon E. Moore Award is the $75,000 top award of the Intel ISEF is provided to the top Best in Category project.
Jack Andraka, American inventor, scientist, and cancer researcher won The Gordon E. Moore Award as a Freshman in High School in 2012. He is known for his award-winning work on a potential method for possibly detecting the early stages of pancreatic and other cancers, which he performed while he was a high school student. His memoir, Breakthrough describes he curiosity as a little kid and what led him into the sciences – with few basement explosions along the way. Jack is interviewed throughout the documentary Science Fair, offering insight and reflection on the process of getting and winning at Intel ISEF.
This documentary challenges all assumptions about science nerds. Science Fair is a must see for educators whether you teach science or not. The students presented in the film are determined, intelligent, and show ingenuity. To see the passion that the teachers and students have is inspiring to all and an ode to curiosity.