by Rachel Willis
One year back in high school, my school decided participation in the science fair would be compulsory. I resented this since the last thing I wanted to do was “science.”
Watching the teenagers profiled in documentarians Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s film Science Fair, I start to understand the appeal of sincere participation in regional, national and international science fairs. If I had seen film the year I participated, I might have taken it more seriously.
What these kids invent, build and research makes my greenhouse in a shoe box look prosaic. From research into ways to prevent Zika transmission to monitoring and testing for arsenic in groundwater, these kids are smart, ambitious, and driven.
The crème de la crème of science fairs is the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). To qualify for participation in ISEF, first these students must win their area science fairs, which can be state-wide or regional competitions. However they make it to ISEF, the teenagers who qualify have already faced stiff challenges from their fellow science enthusiasts.
To help the viewer understand the pressure these kids face, former ISEF winner Jack Andraka sheds light on the stress of presenting to judges. Projects that students have worked on for months, even an entire year, must be broken down into ten minute presentations to a handful of judges who will decide if their project is worth the prestigious Gordon E. Moore Award.
It’s hard to pick a favorite. All of the teenagers profiled are charming and their desire to win is infectious. You wish they could all win.
Science Fair follows the familiar structure of other films depicting students engaged in fierce competition – First Position, Spellbound, and Make Believe. We’re given time to get to know the students profiled, to watch them hard at work on their craft, and then we follow them through the competitions as they fight their way to the finish line.
Costantini and Foster make a point to profile students from varied backgrounds. Some of the kids attend private schools especially focused on STEM education. Others attend public schools so focused on athletics that science achievements are completely ignored. The directors want to make a point that science is for everyone and anyone can achieve the level of success that these students find.
In a country that frequently devalues science and scientists, this documentary reminds us that these kids are our future.
That future is very bright.