The International Science and Engineering Fair features over 1,500 high school students from over 70 countries competing for the coveted “Best in Fair” prize. For the nine students in Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster’s delightful and inspiring film Science Fair, the ISEF is not just a hub of innovation, but also a gateway to a possible feature. For some winning will help them secure a spot at a top university and for others it will bring much need attention, and potential funding, to the impoverished schools that they are representing.
Through the diverse groups of students that Costantini and Foster follow, the film not only captures the pressures of the competition, where everything from the style of Bristol board used is scrutinized, but also the social and economic differences of the environments they come from. For the overly confident 14-year-old Anjali, going to one of he best schools in Kentucky does not hide the fact that the male students are more respected in the science program despite her many accomplishments.
Her experience is in direct contrast to individuals like Brazilian students Myllena and Gabriel, who overcome an underfunded education system to create an invention designed to combat the Zika virus, or German aviation enthusiast Ivo, who must deal with the pressures of living in an economy that is in desperate need of new things to market to the world.
The film also effectively highlights how many of the students, who may feel like outcasts in their daily lives, get to feel at home amongst their intellectual peers at ISEF. Take for example 17-year-old West Virginian Robbie who is a genius when it comes to number theory, but whose poor grades, due to lack of interest in day-to-day school work, threatens his chances of going to college. Another such individual is Kashifa, a 16-year-old Muslim American in South Dakota who goes unnoticed in her in school despite being inspired by her fellow students’ struggle with substance abuse to work on a device that explores the effects of risky cognitive function in youths.
The film also reminds us about the threat that is currently being placed on science at a political level. As astutely pointed out by Dr. McCalla, a teacher in Jericho, New York who dedicates her free time to preparing her students for ISEF, America “will fail if we give up on our scientists.” Her remarks are echoed on a global level by other teachers and past winners in the film.
Science Fair is a true crowd-pleaser full of humour and even moments of suspense. Much like the competitors themselves, Costantini and Foster keep us guessing to the very end as to whether any of the nine will walk away with the top prize. One does not need a PHD to be charmed by Science Fair.