The new documentary Science Fair follows several high school students on their journey to being accepted and competing in the world’s largest pre-college science competition. Their projects include groundbreaking science, yet these young scientists do not have advanced degrees and are just as silly and full of nerves and hormones as any other high school teenager. All of which turns out to be hilarious, educational, awkward, inspiring, and highly entertaining to watch play out on the big screen.
Filmmaker Cristina Costantini describes the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) as “one of the most stressful, exhilarating, sublime, terrible experiences a young person could go through.”
She would know, she competed in the fair when she was a student.
“I was a science fair kid when I was in high school and so I participated for two years and it totally changed my life,” Constantino says. “And in the dark, dark years of high school, [ISEF] validated my passions and taught me as a young woman that my ideas mattered and really gave me a platform to explore my own projects which was super important for me.”
That is what inspired her to make the film.
“And so, when I became an adult, I realized just how much it changed who I was but also remembered so fondly these moments in this subculture that I wanted to do a documentary to celebrate it. Kind of a love letter to the science fair for saving me during these dark times.”
After her tenure as a science geek in high school, Constantino planned to go into science as a career. However, in college, she began to have an interest in journalism and was particularly inspired by the work of investigative journalist Mariana van Seller and her husband, producer Darren Foster. Years later she got the opportunity to work with the couple and co-directed Science Fair with Foster.
“What really sold me [on Science Fair] was this story about how she skipped the opportunity to go to the junior prom with her high school crush so she could compete at a science fair,” recalled Foster. “I won’t do the story justice, you’ll have to ask Cristina, but it was the nerdiest thing I ever heard. I was in.”
Just reflecting on prom or the “dark times” of high school can elicit a complex mixture of emotions in many of us. We can sympathize with the trials and tribulations of high school students, and in Science Fair, the coming-of-age stories run parallel with the experience and the science involved with the fair.
“I knew these kids were brilliant but I think going back as an adult, you just realize how truly brilliant some of them are,” says Constantino. “Out of this fair alone that we followed, there were 500 patents that came out of it.”
Some of the students and their projects highlighted in the film are: a Muslim girl in South Dakota, who is monitoring brain waves of athletes; two students from a poor town in Brazil who are working on a protein that can inhibit the spread of the Zika virus; and a goofy kid in West Virginia with poor grades who refuses to do homework and is working on artificial intelligence programming.
“It’s crazy when you realize how young they are and how amazing some of their projects are. I mean, it’s not just baking soda volcanoes,” explained Constantino. “They’re doing stuff that becomes real science that really impacts our lives and makes the world a better place.”
Reading stories of genius kids doing incredible things can elicit a stereotypical image of how these highly intelligent kids may look or act. Many of us probably think of a bookworm with perfect grades who is continually studying and researching. However, Science Fair shows us that these super smart kids are not so different from the teenagers we have in our homes and neighborhoods.
Some of them even need encouragement from adults. Dr. Serena McCalla, a research teacher at Long Island’s Jericho High School, helped nine of her students get into the ISEF competition. It is rare for a school to get more than one, and McCalla’s students are mostly immigrants that speak English as a second language. As we see in the film, McCalla employs a very aggressive style of motivation, much like some of us need to apply to get our teenager out of bed.
“It’s really important for us to show these kids as the regular teenagers that they are,” says Constantino. “We didn’t want to put them on any special pedestal and treat them as if they are these great aberrations or anything like that. At the end of the day, these are teenagers.”
“One minute they’re practicing their science fair pitch, and the next minute they’re in the car driving around with friends listening to trap music (an often gritty, dark form of hip-hop),” Foster says. “All those dimensions were really important for us to capture.”
Another misconception Science Fair may dispel for viewers is the gender and racial diversity of the science fair participants.
“What’s really exciting about the science fair is there are so many different kinds of people,” Constantino explains. “There are people from 78 different countries. So it’s inherently more diverse than your average American high school. But there are also immigrants and immigrants’ children in the science fair world. We couldn’t have done a movie about the science fair without showing children from many different backgrounds. Because that’s really what the science fair world looks like.”
“The contribution of immigrants in science in this country and progress and innovation goes back generations,” says Foster “It was really important for us to acknowledge that. But I think Dr. McCalla says it best in our film when you come to America as an immigrant you appreciate the opportunity that is before you and I think a lot of these kids feel a bit of a burden to see that opportunity because they know the sacrifices that their parents made. And I think our characters in our film who are immigrants, are the children of immigrants articulate that really well.”
Movie critics and viewers alike seem to be enjoying Science Fair. It currently boasts a 100% score on Rotten Tomatoes’ Tomatometer and a 90% audience score. It also helps that National Geographic Documentary Films has picked up the movie. Foster says this partnership has been “huge.”
“It couldn’t be a better fit because National Geographic is synonymous with science and exploration,” explains Foster. “But they also have this amazing platform to reach people not only through their video outlets but also through their educational outreach. So it just lines up perfectly with the mission of our film which is we want to get this to inspire kids and families and get it out to as many as possible. So National Geographic just got it from the beginning.”
Constantino also hopes the film will inspire more people to dip into their pocketbooks to fund the efforts of these kids.
“Fund science fair programs!” Constantino exclaims. “They need all the support they can get right now. Oklahoma just cut its science fair from the state budget, and ISEF just lost its principal funder when Intel announced it is pulling its support after next year. Science fairs may seem like just a nerdy extracurricular program, but for some of us, they made all the difference.”