Americans love competition, whether on the playing fields or in the auditorium. Filmmakers also love competitions, because the mechanics of a spelling bee or a football game or a dance contest provide a readymade structure complete with easily understandable stakes and the opportunity to highlight different types of contestants and their reactions to what happens over the course of the event.
Of course, with so many documentaries structured around competitions these days, it can be a challenge to make any such film seem fresh and new. Fortunately, directors Christina Costantini and Darren Foster succeed admirably in Science Fair, a new documentary that follows a number of high school competitors and one teacher through the rounds of the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). It’s a bit like the Olympics, but for really smart young people, featuring 1,700 competitors from 78 countries (the fact that some arrive in traditional clothing from their home regions is a particularly nice, Olympics-like touch).
Costantini and Foster choose a varied assortment of competitors and teams to follow, underlining the “big tent” virtues of science—a good idea can come from anyone, there’s no substitute for hard work, people from varied cultures can communicate based on common understandings, and there’s no one personality type or specific cultural background that is required to do good science. They also do a good job communicating what the different projects are about, and why they are important, thus getting around a problem endemic to spelling bees, because the whole process seems essentially pointless in the era of electronic dictionaries and spellcheckers. In contrast, there’s nothing trivial about the projects these students have undertaken, and many have real-world implications in fields like medicine, engineering, and psychology.
Another virtue of having a varied crew of students to focus on is that, as with a boy band, everyone can choose their favorite. I was rooting for Kashfia, a hijabi in a very white, very sports-obsessed high school in South Dakota. Not only is her project (about what causes teenagers to undertake risky behaviors) fascinating, she also shows great strength of spirit in finding a way to thrive in a school that clearly does not value her talents. Case in point: her science teachers refused to serve as faculty sponsors, so she asks the football coach to be her sponsor (which he good-naturedly agrees to do, although he admits to not understanding the science she is doing). Another case in point—while the football team (which went winless the year she was competing at ISEF) is showered with attention, most of her fellow students have no idea who she is or what her accomplishments are.
Robbie is more of a stereotypical nerd, a young man from West Virginia who can’t be bothered to do his homework but loves tinkering with old computers and getting cell phones to do things they were never intended to do. Myllena and Gabriel, from a poor area in Brazil, discover a protein that can inhibit the spread of the Zika virus. Ryan, Harsha, and Abraham, who attend a science high school in Kentucky, build a stethoscope that connects to an online database of heart sounds. Anjali, who attends the same high school, builds a device to detect arsenic in drinking water. Ivo, a German student, redesigns a single-wing aircraft to make it more stable and efficient. Dr. Serena McCalla teaches at Jericho High School on Long Island, and her teams, many of which are composed of immigrant students whose first languge is not English, have enjoyed extraordinary success at ISEF (nine qualified in the year this film was made).
We don’t get to see the judging process, as only contestants and judges are allowed in the competition hall during that time. Still, you’ll hardly miss it as Costantini and Foster have done such a good job of presenting the contestants and ratcheting up the tension, and you do get to see the awards ceremony. Even if you never competed in a science fair, you can understand and appreciate the creativity and hard work that went in to all the projects presented, and the maturity and optimism of the students will make you feel a little better about our future as a species. | Sarah Boslaugh