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Column: A science fair where nerdy kids feel ‘like they’ve found their tribe’

PATT MORRISON ASKS

You know about the Olympics, and you’re all up on the Oscars. For teenage science students the world over, the annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair is all that and then some. This is not your dimly remembered middle-school science fair. Hundreds of patents come out of these student projects. So do life-altering careers, and renowned alums like Nobel Prize-winning chemist Paul Modrich and New York Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

As a student, Cristina Costantini competed impressively at ISEF, and she and Darren Foster co-directed their documentary “Science Fair,” the festival favorite at Sundance last year. The film, which just missed being called “The Journey to the Top of Nerd Mountain,” follows the fortunes of nine high school students whose projects earned them a spot in this high-pressure, high-stakes competition. With the 2019 ISEF beginning this month, Costantini and Foster explain what it’ll be like for about 1,800 of the smartest science students in the world.


The International Science and Engineering Fair is coming up and your documentary reminds us who the kids are, year over year, and what’s at stake.

Costantini: Our movie follows nine kids from around the world who are competing at this International Science and Engineering Fair, which is the Olympics of science fairs. We had the great privilege of following these kids for two years and then seeing their trials and tribulations and their victories and their struggles. And it was one of the most fun things I've ever done.

Virtually every kid, at least in the United States, has had to compete in a science fair. I made a desalination plant out of my mother's cake pans – a source of great displeasure and I didn't even win. You were in this science fair, right? What were your projects?

Costantini: I studied social conformity so I developed a test that measured susceptibility to peer pressure in teenage boys.

Did you get to this international level of competition?

Costantini: Yeah, I did, and I placed fourth and it totally changed my life and set me on a track that I would not have been able to be on if it were not for the science fair. The stakes are very high for many of the kids who compete, and it really can change lives, and it changed the lives of many of our kids in our movie.

You worked on it for two years which means you had to choose these kids way before they ended up in Los Angeles at the science fair. How did you go about selecting these nine really remarkable kids?

Foster: The casting process was the hardest part of the film. There's 1,700 kids that participate in the science fair ISEF every year, and they come from almost 80 countries. So we basically cast a very wide net. We went on a scouting trip in 2016 for the first time to see the fair and we went around and basically walked the aisles and started talking to kids. We talked to like hundreds of kids and we just found kids that had amazing stories. But we wanted a good representation of the kind of kids who went up at ISEF. So those kinds were underdog communities and underdog schools, and some kids that go to the powerhouse schools like duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky., which is featured in our documentary.

And then you had students like the girl from Brazil, who lives in a village, and was studying a way to treat or protect from the Zika virus, which had hit her country hard. Did you want each of them to be somebody we were cheering for, or were you casting villains too?

Costantini: Because they are kids, and because they're doing such amazing work, you're rooting for all of them at some level. But some of them have such great barriers to overcome, like Myllena from Brazil, that it's hard not to want the underdogs to do well. She now is in the United States studying English, so for her this fair really changed her life. But in order to find her, we interviewed every single Brazilian student who qualified for the International Fair -- over 20 kids and everybody came from means and from great schools, aside from Myllena. Her father's a farmhand, her mother’s a maid. She lives in a very rural town and she was doing incredible work when we met her.

Then there was a Muslim girl from South Dakota who had to persuade the school football coach to sponsor her.

Foster: Kashfia is one of our favorite characters as well. She also is a bit of an underdog, in the fact that she went to a school that is, like many schools in the United States, where they celebrate the athletics and the football team. But science is not something that was given much respect.

But she loves science, and she was looking for a mentor, and none of the science teachers or teachers at school were willing to dedicate the time that she needed to her project. And she turned to the head football coach at the school who became her unlikely mentor.

Can you describe what it felt like for all the science students to be there at that competition?

Costantini: It was so surreal for me when I was a teenager. I’m from Wisconsin. I had never seen that many people in a room at one time. The entire [convention] floor is just buzzing, and you have some of the most nerdy, brilliant minds in that one room. The kids who are otherwise shunned in their high schools as nerdy kids are finally treated like rock stars. Everybody finally feels like they've found their tribe; it's a really beautiful experience and fun to be a part of. And in the big dance which happens there -- it’s a mixer and it’s 2,000 kids really getting down in a club setting. That was important for me to kind of capture because I loved it when I lived through it myself.

Foster: It's like Ibiza for nerds!

The energy that they build up, because the judges come around to each of these booths and look to see what your project is; their palms are sweating and they're anxious.

Foster: We had all these kids just reflect on what that experience is like to be under eight hours of basically a grilling from judges who are very much experts in their field. These are 14-, 15-, 16-year-old kids, and they're facing judges who have been in their fields of expertise for that long. So it's remarkable that they're able to withstand that pressure but they do.

Costantini: One of our characters, Kashfia, fainted from the stress of judging. You've been preparing for this for sometimes years and you have these eight hours to impress some of the most brilliant minds in the world and you only have one shot.

For you to select these nine young people was a crap shoot. You didn't know whether they were all going to go the distance, or whether any one of them was going to win or come close to winning.

Foster: We were interested in the science and then the projects they were doing, but we were really more interested in the students and their stories. And it just so happened that a couple of them also had really great science projects.

What's become of these students since you did the documentary?

Foster: Oh man, so many interesting things. Robbie, who's from West Virginia, who is basically failing at a math class when we'd meet him but he's presenting at ISEF this math theory project. He’s like a math genius on one hand, but he just doesn't do his homework at school. So he's got a very fraught relationship with his math teacher but he does amazing stuff. And so he's really on the cutting edge of this intersection between artificial intelligence and art. He's making amazing paintings and fashion; I was wearing pants that he made the other day.

Costantini: He was on the cover of Bloomberg Businessweek. He's doing incredible things that are really shaping his field.

Foster: Kashfia is at Harvard, and she just did a TED Talk.

Costantini: And everybody else is in college and thriving, and we’re going to work for them someday!

Your film won the audience award at the Sundance Film Festival. It got 99% on Rotten Tomatoes. What is it about this documentary that people love so much? Because science and your general audience usually don't fit together.

Foster: You know, these kids are inspiring and I think they are a ray of hope.

Costantini: We live during a time when so many adults are acting like children but seeing children who are acting like adults, who are valuing the things that we should be valuing and working hard and putting in real work – I think it's refreshing.

Foster: It probably goes without saying that the science they're doing is not baking-soda-volcano kinds of science fair projects. These kids are doing real cutting-edge stuff, and out of the fair that we covered, there were more than 500 patents that came out. So these kids are doing things that are really going to change the world.

And for people who haven't seen it yet, it's not a film about science per se; it's about science students, and how they feel about science and their own work. Did you argue over the title “Science Fair”?

Costantini: We did, yeah. There were a lot of arguments because the movie itself is funny and full of quirky kids, and “Science Fair” is maybe drier than we thought. But we went through about 100 names; I remember one was “The Journey to the Top of Nerd Mountain.” In the end, we just kept coming back to the fact that “Science Fair” was very straightforward and it is what it is.

Foster: The science fair is a great American tradition. It dates back to the ’50s -- actually back to World War II. When we were facing big global challenges, we turned to science. I wish we could say that today. The most fun I think we had was going back and meeting the winner of the first-ever science fair, Dr. Paul Teschan. He’s 93 years young – well, maybe 94 by now. He’s living in Nashville, and had this amazing career as a doctor and as a professor at the medical school at Vanderbilt [University]. To this day, at 94 years old, one of the greatest memories he has is of winning the science fair.

Costantini: And he really credits that win with putting him on the path to becoming the eventual inventor of prophylactic dialysis. The science fair I think is so important for kids at that age. It’s early validation that they should keep going with what they're interested in.

Foster: Unfortunately, we’re living in a time when science is very much under attack and definitely not valued as much as it should be. Science fairs have a hard time raising money. In Oklahoma, they cut the budget for the science fairs, so the state science fair lost its funding because the state basically said its budget couldn't afford $50,000 to pay for the science fair.

Costantini: ISEF has lost its main sponsor, which was Intel. If you know anyone with millions and millions of dollars who wants to support a very good cause, the science fair is looking for a funder.

If only they could put their projects to rap music.

Foster: Well, they do it in our film.

Robbie taught the computer to rap?

Costantini: Like Kanye West!

Apart from that, what are your favorite moments in the documentary?

Foster: What sold the film was a moment, the opening moment of the film, where Jack Andraka wins the science fair in 2012. And it’s an amazing moment. It’s pure exhilaration. That was one of the first things that Cristina showed me when she told me about this idea for the project. And then he winds up being a kind of narrator for the science fair experience in our film.

How did this film change your lives?

Foster: I think it’s done for me what it’s done for the audience, which is sort of restored my faith in humanity and the future.

Costantini: We thought we were going to go straight back to serious investigative work, which I think is still where our heart is. But I think that seeing how people react to hopeful stories or to humor I think has made us think a little bit more about how we might deliver some of the messages that we care so much about-- investigative stories -- in maybe a happier wrapping.

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