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