By Kimberly Schmidt
If you’re worried about the world that today’s youth will be inheriting, the documentary Science Fair is the antidote to that. Given the support they need, it’s the kids that might just save us.
Filmmakers Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster follow nine students (and one teacher) as they prepare to compete at the “Olympics of Science Fairs,” known as ISEF (International Science and Engineering Fair). ISEF is not just a science fair; it’s a support system, goal-setter, and platform for this rare tribe of like-minded teens to aspire to absolute greatness.
I had the opportunity to speak with cast members Dr. McCalla and Robbie Barrat at the National Geographic Red Carpet Premier in Los Angeles. We talked about the wonders and setbacks that students face when trying to harness their imaginations in today’s outdated classroom environment.
While it’s remarkable for any high school to have even one student qualify for ISEF, Dr. McCalla (an enigma herself) has had nine. She’s devoted her life to mentoring students and, by doing so, is securing a better future for the world at large.
Robbie is a student that risked flunking his algebra course while conducting A.I. research. His interests are in decoding how machines learn, which is all the more poetic considering his school’s lack of interest in the untraditional ways in which he learns.
Like Robbie, ISEF qualifiers are just teenagers and yet they’re producing verifiable research that professionals in the same field haven’t yet realized. I asked Dr. McCalla if there’s something to be said about the power of imagination versus experience and according to her it’s the lack of knowing boundaries that often allow kids thrive in research.
“Sometimes as an adult I’m so narrow-minded because I believe what I think I know. Because [the kids] don’t really know what they don’t know, their ideas are spectacular! They’re the innovators because they don’t know they’re in a box. They’re so outside the box that sometimes it really works.”
We talked about the irony of having an unbound imagination the first 15 years of our lives only to be trained to be singular in our learning and in our understanding in order to produce the same results in tests; next thing you know you’re an adult reading how-to books on conquering limiting beliefs followed by a lifetime trying to get that youthful spirit of “anything is possible!” back again.
This echoes all the more reason to take urgency in nurturing the budding curiosities of kids while they have elastic minds and encouraging them to pursue challenging projects of their choosing rather than only caring about test scores.
“We focus too much on trying to get them to a grade versus letting them explore. As long as we give them the fundamentals I think we should let them go! No, no’s! If they want to do something we should really say ‘alright, give me more information about it and let me support you’ and then let them run.”
Beyond the groundbreaking research itself, we realize the true brilliance of these kids—all nine of them made it to ISEF no matter their age, socio-economical ranking, race, gender, or mentorship. In stark contrast to Dr. McCalla’s approach, there are some alarming gaps in educational support systems that seem to come from a combination of teacher fatigue, lack of sufficient funding, even to apathy of STEM studies at the administration level.
Literally embodying the expression “brawns vs. brains,” Hijab adorned Kashfia researched the cognitive effects of substance abuse in adolescence and was denied support from her well-equipped sports-obsessed high school. She forms an unlikely kinship with Coach Schmidt, proving that in science (as in life) you can still support students in a meaningful way even if you don’t understand or share their same interests.
In another cringe-worthy scene, Robbie is subtly scrutinized for wanting to marvel about the beauty of number theory instead of doing his daily lessons; meanwhile he’s training his computer to rap like Kanye West. Instead of supporting him, he is told no and, even worse, he will fail if he doesn’t refocus. It gives a new context to Dr. McCalla’s mention in the film that maybe it’s not the students that fail, “This country will fail if we give up on our scientists.”
Wondering if we should have a science fair about how to change the school system, I asked Robbie how he thinks math should be taught, “I’m careful what I say about this but I do have problems with math education because it’s just exercises; you’re not solving math problems – I think they should teach math proofs in math class. My problem was that it was just really boring and the common excuse with kids is that it’s useless and for a lot of the stuff they teach, sure, they’re right but it’s because they aren’t really teaching what math is about.”
It’s difficult to understand how someone could stand in front of this brilliant kid who is clearly illuminating from within about “beautiful numbers” and not insist on encouraging him to realize his dreams. And even more daunting, how many other kids are being overlooked?
He added, “They teach all these formulas like they’re coal handed down from god but really if you look into it, it’s the sum of thousands of years of mathematicians working together and making really, really beautiful proofs and theorems and discoveries; it just gets such a bad rap in high school education.”
For a machine decoder, it makes sense that he’s deciphering how to reprogram our ways of thinking about mathematics. I asked if it would help students to approach math studies as a tool for solving problems in life, he simplified it even further,“Ya, but not even that. Just beautiful theorems and proofs…” he said, “[They] shape the way that you think.” Rather than using menial math exercises to learn how to answer, theorems would teach students how to produce more profound questions.
ISEF is as a microcosm of what our current world could be if we prioritized school support systems for kids and robustly funded STEM programs. Science Fair restores hope in the prosperity of science and in the kids that are, thankfully, destined be our future leaders. If they can make it to ISEF…they can do anything they set their brilliant minds to.