Science is under attack in this country. Do I even need to quantify that? We know what our current reality is, who our president is, what our Congress refuses to do, how underfunded our education system is, how our priorities align more toward friday night lights than after-school academic clubs. Hell, even in the new Predator movie, adorable little Jacob Tremblay is bullied for his interest in science and his love of chess. Shows like The Big Bang Theory may be super-popular (I will not pour one out for its cancellation, thank you, because the show was on too damn long to begin with), but our collective commitment to scientific discovery and our desire to fund new innovations and educational curricula doesn’t match that pop culture interest. (Unless you’re a billionaire trying to conquer space or a billionaire trying to live forever by drinking human blood, and honestly, neither of those is truly for the public good.)
So when I tell you that the new National Geographic documentary Science Fair is both inspirational and enraging, I think you know what I mean. Because the kids featured in this documentary from writers and directors Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster are brilliant, amazing, so damn smart at 14, 15, 16, 17 years old.
A pair of Brazilian researchers are working on a way to prohibit a protein to halt the spread of Zika virus. A young woman from duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky, lauded as “America’s best magnet school,” is working on a test to detect arsenic to be able to prevent cancer. Also at her high school, a trio of young men is working on an advanced stethoscope and app that would help medical treatment for underserved international communities. A teenager from Germany is working on unconventional aeronatics designs; a group of high schoolers from New York are coached by their no-nonsense advisor into perfecting their research presentations; and a young Bangladeshi-American woman in South Dakota is tracking adolescent brain activity and how it is affected by risky decisions or behaviors.
What inspires these kids as they toil toward placing at the ultra-competitive ISEF, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which in 2017 featured 1,700 finalists from around the world, competing in 22 categories? They want to make the world a better place, they want to better understand our bodies and our minds, they want to improve our communities. Brazilian Myllena, whose father is a farmhand and whose mother is a maid, sees the babies with microcephaly in her small town and wants to combat Zika; she knows that her familial background and her educational experience are far different from an American student like Anjali, the 14-year-old in Louisville who skipped grades and who confidently says of herself, “I would say that a lot of people are jealous of me. I know that it sounds pretty arrogant, but it’s very true.” But at the same time, Anjali also knows that her exceptional grades and outgoing personality are off-putting to people who may look more kindly upon her classmate Ryan, a senior who looks more like a “surfer dude from southern California” than a great coder. And maybe those same people wouldn’t know that Ryan’s research partner Harsha, who compulsively combs his hair before a presentation and who starches his teammates’ shirts because “they’re my bros,” also listens nearly exclusively to trap music.
These kids all contain multitudes, and you’ll root for them all to be recognized for their exceptional work and to receive the kind of leg up from this competition that will land them a spot at prestigious universities or even job offers after high school graduation, but because I am who I am, I gravitated immediately toward Kashfia. A soft-spoken hijab-wearing junior from Brookings High School in South Dakota, she’s placed before at ISEF, but literally no one at her school knows who she is; at lunch, table after table of students are confused by her name (“How do you say her name again?” one of them asks), or amazed that she exists (“Wait. We really have one of those people here?”). Because of the ISEF rules, she has to have a teacher adviser, and it’s reassuring to see that the school’s football coach accepted when she asked (“I think inside, there’s a lion,” he says fondly), but it’s clear that Kashfia is lonely. “Being a Muslim, being a female, it’s really hard to be open in expressing myself,” she says. And did my heart collapse in empathy and recognition when she said that she tries to “be extra nice and smile at people on the streets and look like I’m very unharmful” because of her hijab? Yes, reader, it did!
But this documentary is full of figures who remind you, “Oh right, science is amazing, and oh right, we don’t value creativity enough, and oh right, our current administration’s policy of clamping down on immigration while also defunding education is fucking us over.” There’s Robbie, a high school student who taught his computer how to write rhymes like Kanye West, but he almost failed his math class for programming his calculator to spit out Shakespearean insults (his mother repeats one, “Thou art an unwashed buttock,” while his father proudly chimes in with a “Yup!”). There’s Dr. McCalla, the science research teacher in New York who wears a lab coat embroidered with “Don’t play a playa” and who spends between 8 and 12 hours a day at school guiding student projects; she may be Teacher of the Year, but she acknowledges that her commitment to her work keeps her from dating or starting a family. And as Dr. McCalla, the child of parents from Panama and Jamaica says, without the contributions of immigrants, “We wouldn’t have cars, batteries, you wouldn’t have the simple things in life.”
Not every American school can have a Dr. McCalla or the resources of duPont Manual; far more are like Kashfia’s South Dakota school, the one with three gyms and no research labs. What Science Fair effectively does is make you proud of the achivements of these stellar kids and infuriated that these sort of opportunities don’t exist for everyone. The reality is that most children probably still wouldn’t be motivated enough to compete for ISEF, wouldn’t be interested in the “fear and anxiety,” as one student says, and even the “quite lit” dance party that opens ISEF couldn’t entice them. But the fact that so many of the students in Science Fair are battling against a disinterested educational system to try and change the world through science is disheartening as hell. These kids deserve better. For the future of our planet and our society, we all do.
Science Fair is in limited release around the U.S. You can find showtimes here.
Image sources (in order of posting): National Geographic, National Geographic/Epk.tv, National Geographic