Sci­ence Fair

SCI­ENCE FAIR, doc­u­men­tary, rated PG, The Screen, 3.5 chiles

Pasatiempo - - PASATIEMPO -

Oh, the kids these days — al­ways go­ing around chas­ing break­throughs in epi­demi­ol­ogy or dig­ging into ad­vanced num­ber the­ory or re­vis­it­ing long-dis­carded ideas about aero­nau­tics that may change our fu­ture af­ter all. Co-di­rec­tors Cristina Costan­tini and Dar­ren Foster fol­low a hand­ful of them from among the 1,700 stu­dents from 78 na­tions who trav­eled to Los An­ge­les in search of gold at the 2017 In­tel In­ter­na­tional Sci­ence and Engi­neer­ing Fair. As­pir­ing sci­en­tists from Brazil and Ger­many are in­cluded in the film’s fo­cus, but for the most part it spot­lights Amer­i­cans. That surely made lo­gis­ti­cal sense, given that the di­rec­tors needed to doc­u­ment back sto­ries of com­peti­tors they reck­oned might have a chance at win­ning. Zip­ping around the United States to mon­i­tor their progress would have been man­age­able in a way that broader global cov­er­age would not.

There was plenty of quiet drama for the film­mak­ers to ob­serve in this heart­warm­ing 90-minute doc­u­men­tary. It turns out there are two pow­er­house high schools in the United States that are well known for craft­ing ISEF win­ners: DuPont Man­ual High School in Louisville, Ken­tucky, and Jericho High School in a New York City sub­urb on Long Is­land. Louisville’s en­trants in­clude a team of three guys who are de­vis­ing a 3D-print­able stetho­scope that links to an on­line data­base of ab­nor­mal heart sounds — a po­ten­tial boon es­pe­cially in coun­tries where med­i­cal training and staffing are in short sup­ply.

From Jericho ar­rive nine com­peti­tors. It’s an un­ri­valed con­cen­tra­tion from a sin­gle school at ISEF, but when you get to know the school’s sci­ence coach, you un­der­stand how it hap­pens. The film­mak­ers ob­vi­ously set out to film great stu­dents, but they also caught a great teacher in the bar­gain. Watch­ing her hold her pupils to lofty stan­dards as they de­sign their sci­ence-fair booths and craft their six-minute pre­sen­ta­tions ex­em­pli­fies tough love in the class­room.

Not ev­ery­body en­joys the ad­van­tages that come with the ter­ri­tory at these well-funded, high-pow­ered high schools. One of the most touch­ing sto­ries is that of a gen­tle six­teen-year-old in a small South Dakota city, a prodigy in psy­cho­log­i­cal mea­sure­ment at a high school with min­i­mal sci­ence fa­cil­i­ties. “We have some class­rooms with some lab tables up,” she says. “That’s pretty much it.” An of­fi­cial adult su­per­vi­sor is manda­tory for ISEF con­tes­tants, but since no sci­ence teacher showed in­ter­est, she turned to the foot­ball coach, who at least was a coach. View­ers should be awestruck by the tenac­ity of this teenager try­ing to over­come the triple-whammy of dis­re­gard she faces as a fe­male Mus­lim sci­en­tist in a com­mu­nity that only cel­e­brates male jocks. — James M. Keller

Bright fu­tures await

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