‘Science Fair’ is an inspirational slice of adolescent life that provides a glimpse into the world of competitive science fairs.
Kernel Rating: 4 (4 out of 5)
MPAA Rating: PG Length: 93 minutes
Age Appropriate For: 10+. This documentary follows various teenagers from around the world as they prepare to compete at ISEF, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, an ultra-competitive event featuring the world’s brightest young minds in STEM education. There are some stressful situations for the competitors, some rudeness and implied bullying from their peers, and the implication that teenagers may drink underage or hook up at parties, although that is speculation from one of the science fair competitors and is not shown onscreen.
By Roxana Hadadi
The National Geographic documentary “Science Fair” seems fairly straightforward on its surface: Filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster follow a number of teens from around the world, from Kentucky to Brazil, as they work on science projects that they hope will allow them to qualify for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). These kids want to prevent cancer, they want to stop the spread of Zika virus, they want to understand how the human brain works, they want to expand medical care into underserved communities. They have big dreams, and the work ethic and intelligence to back it up.
Their stories are all amazing and inspirational, but what Costantini and Foster also surreptitiously achieve is making viewers realize how vast the gaps in our national educational system are. These young people are all trying to change the world, but the opportunities they receive to follow their research hypotheses are not at all equal.
Costantini and Foster first lay out how to get to ISEF: For the most part, students have to win statewide or even nationwide competitions, and their work has to stand up to rigorous examination and questioning from the ISEF judges. But before they even get there, the students need a designated adviser at their local school, someone to oversee their work and confirm that they are conducting the research required for their projects.
It’s those relationships between the teens and their various mentors that Costantini and Foster explore both in the U.S. and around the world: a young Bangladeshi-American woman in South Dakota, who attends a high school that has three gyms but no research laboratories, asks the football coach to be her adviser; a German teenager working on cutting-edge aeronautics tests his creations with his father; a young Brazilian woman has her work guided by an infectious disease specialist; and at a high school in New York, a science research teacher pushes all of her students toward excellence, regularly putting in 12-hour days to examine every element of every project to ensure that her students are putting together work that will be noticed and awarded.
The filmmakers spend enough time with each student so you really get a feel for their personalities: for how Kashfia, who is studying how risky behaviors affect the adolescent brain, feels excluded and ignored at her high school — she’s placed at ISEF before, but the school has never recognized the achievement, or how Harsha, a young man who urges his research teammmates to practice their presentation three, four, five more times, also listens exclusively to trap music, a genre of hip-hop known for its grittiness and griminess. These kids have emotional layers and varied interests, and “Science Fair” does an excellent job demonstrating all aspects of who they are, not just their interest in STEM.
These are the burgeoning researchers who will shape science tomorrow, and “Science Fair” insightfully highlights how extremely varied their circumstances are, how drastically their schools vary in funding, and how their work is treated by peers, teachers, and loved ones. The documentary is not only a standing ovation for these young people and what they have achieved, but a challenge to us as viewers to become more involved in STEM, to support the children and teens in our lives who are interested in those fields, and to call for educational and research funding that is committed to the next step forward in science. As both a crowd-pleaser and a call for educational advocacy, “Science Fair” succeeds.
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