Kris Rothstein's Blog

VIFF 2018: Science Fair

Kris Rothstein

If you need some positive energy in your life, then rush out to see Science Fair. This documentary tells the story of American teenagers hoping to qualify for and win the prestigious annual International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). Seventeen hundred kids from over seventy countries are eligible after winning state and international science competitions.

The hopeful students are brilliant, curious, innovative and inspiring. They are also funny in ways only kids can be. Robbie forages for old computer parts, created a machine learning program which analyzed Kanye West lyrics to create new songs, and also programmed his graphing calculator to generate Shakespearean insults.

The nine students and one teacher profiled are from Kentucky, Long Island, South Dakota, West Virginia, Germany and Brazil. Their inventions and discoveries include treatment for Zika Virus, an improved stethoscope, a 3D-printed sensor for arsenic in drinking water sources, and the design and construction of a prototype of a new, improved flying wing aircraft. Their futures are bright.

In the role of guide is Jack Andraka, who at fifteen won the 2013 fair with his sensor for pancreatic cancer. The film would be worth it for Andraka’s reaction to victory alone. Even if you don’t see the film, watch this clip. Andraka gives a little context about what is entailed in the lead up to the event and the week-long fair itself, including the big dance (where the smarter you are the worse you dance) and the exhaustive preparation and judging process. We also meet a number of winners from the past seven decades who provide insight into what it meant to be a young person in science in the 1940s, or to be the first girl to win.

While the film is an absolute jolt of optimism, it has important commentary about the pitfalls of American education and about the devaluing of science in contemporary American culture. It is enraging and heartbreaking to see that Robbie’s teachers could not care less about his brilliant mind. His math teacher is actually proud to have shut him down, and smugly tells the story of when he asked if she had thoughts on number theory and she told him, no, get back to today’s lesson. Ouch. Given this lack of interest in gifted students, it is little surprise that Robbie isn’t a successful student, even though he had already won the state science fair in a previous year. Other kids like Robbie who don’t have quite the same determination and spirit are easily totally failed by their schools.

The other show of shocking indifference is at Brookings High School in South Dakota, where brilliant, poised and luminous teen, Kashfia Rahman, who won first prize in the 'Behavioral And Social Sciences' category, receives no recognition at her school. Meanwhile, the winless football team is given the heroic treatment. And the football coach, who does not understand Kashfia's experiments on effects of risky behavior on the adolescent brain, is the only faculty member who is interested enough to sponsor her. Kashfia is almost a ghost at her school and she makes sure to smile widely so that her brown skin and headscarf are not perceived as terrorist threats.

Other schools provide multiple science labs and dedicated teachers like Dr. Serena McCalla who has basically given up all life outside her exclusive science classroom. She takes nine students to ISEF and pushes them hard to be the best.

If, like me, you loved Spellbound, the 2002 documentary that told the story of American children trying to win the national spelling bee, then you will absolutely love Science Fair.

This dramatic and humorous story is directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, who chose just the right kids and followed just the right stories to make this as charming and entertaining as possible. It is no mystery why this won the Audience Award at Sundance and SXSW this year.

Screenings on Tuesday, October 2, 2018 at 6:30 PM at International Village 8 and Friday, October 5, 2018 at 6:15 PM at International Village 9.



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