National Geographic’s “Science Fair” Preview: Meet the Kids [Exclusive]
In part 1 of my preview, I talked to co-director Darren Foster and research teacher Dr. Serena McCalla about the importance of science and why people should see this film. In this preview, it’s time to meet these talented and impressive young adults.
Kashfia is a soft-spoken Muslim girl at a massive, sports-obsessed high school in Brookings, South Dakota. When she canâ€™t find a teacher to serve as her research advisor, she forms an unlikely kinship with her schoolâ€™s head football coach. They know that a win at ISEF could be the ticket she needs to escape her conservative hometown. Kashfia dreams of attending college on the East Coast where sheâ€™ll be judged for her intellect and not for her hijab.
Myllena and Gabriel are best friends and research partners from CearÃ¡, one of the poorest states in Brazil. When the deadly Zika virus invaded their hometown, this dynamic duo headed for the laboratory, ultimately identifying a protein that can inhibit Zikaâ€™s spread. They see the possibility of winning the international science fair as a means to escape poverty and to elevate their groundbreaking research.
Robbie is a math genius from West Virginia with a taste for loud shirts and mischief, who nearly failed out of his high school algebra class. He spends most of his days in his attic, building computers from parts he scavenges at a local junkyard, writing machine learning algorithms and daydreaming of a future surrounded by kids with similar interests. Robbie hopes that a win at ISEF will make up for his abysmal grades and get him into a good college.
For their senior year at Kentuckyâ€™s top science and engineering high school, Ryan, Harsha and Abraham have gone full Voltron, combining their considerable talents to build one science fair super project. Theyâ€™ve built an electronic 3D-printed stethoscope that automatically connects to an online database of heart sounds, allowing doctors to diagnose heart abnormalities far more accurately. The boys hope their stethoscope program will be useful in the developing world, where medics are understaffed and under-resourced.
Anjali is a child prodigy who attends the same powerhouse Louisville high school as Ryan, Harsha and Abraham. As a 13-year-old freshman, she scored a perfect 36 on the ACT. Now, as a sophomore, sheâ€™s built an arsenic testing device that could save millions of lives. Whip-smart, ultra-competitive and uber-confident, Anjali must deal with an early setback at a qualifying fair on her road to ISEF.
On the banks of the Rhine River, we meet Ivo, a brilliant and endearingly awkward young German looking to turn his childhood obsession into science fair gold. Ivo unearthed a century-old single-wing design that was poorly rated by modern aeronautics engineers. By questioning accepted beliefs in the field, Ivo redesigned the aircraft to make it more stable and more efficient. His project wowed the judges at the German National Fair and qualified him for ISEF, which will be his first international competition and his first trip to the United States.
Dr. Serena McCalla is a research teacher from Long Island … and a force of nature. Known for her demanding, in-your-face style, she has transformed her team of young immigrants from Jericho High School â€” most of whom speak English as a second language â€” into one of the best science fair teams in the world. In an ultra-competitive scene where itâ€™s remarkable for any high school to have one or two students qualify for ISEF, Dr. McCalla had nine.
After meeting these incredibly talented kids in the film (both onscreen and at the premiere), I hope all these young scientists are able to find an administrator who takes them seriously and helps encourage their academic (and non-academic) growth. Here’s part 2 of my exclusive Q&A with Darren Foster and Dr. Serena McCalla.
TV GOODNESS: Dr. Calla, you’re great character in this film. I loved meeting all these amazing kids, but itâ€™s also so important to meet the adults who are supporting them and there for them at every step. You said it takes so much to be that for them. Do you basically go to school year round? You have the regular school year and then you have summer camp. Can you tell me more about that?
Dr McCalla: “I work, literally, eleven and a half months a year. Itâ€™s ok. Iâ€™m gonna figure it out. [Laughs.]
The summer camp, honestly, came from the students. They gave me a pass. They said, ‘You know what, youâ€™re not really allowing other kids to have your expertise,’ because when we would go to competitions I would help other kids outside of my school. [I thought] they could really just fix this little piece. ‘Let me just go tell them, right?’ And the kids were like, ‘Ok, sheâ€™s nuts. But we get it.'”
TV GOODNESS: But they still love you.
Dr McCalla: “Yeah. So it basically came from saying, ‘Alright you just really need to do something.’ So one of my kids actually made the website for me.”
Darren Foster: “One of the benefits of having great kids.”
Dr. McCalla: “Yeah. He was like, â€˜No. No. I got you.â€™ In two days this fabulous thing came up. So he was like, â€˜Now you donâ€™t have a choice. Just do it.â€™ And from there itâ€™s growing and, honestly, itâ€™s shifted from just being just an institute to help kids.
Now I really want to get the underrepresented, underprivileged kids in because I didnâ€™t know about science fair. Even though my life is phenomenal, I really wonder how the trajectory of my life wouldâ€™ve changed if I knew about these competitions when I was in high school. I was an academic powerhouse in high school and I still didnâ€™t know about these competitions. So I want to open doors for those kids who were like me. They couldâ€™ve done it, but they didnâ€™t have the opportunity because they didnâ€™t know.”
TV GOODNESS: Can you talk a little bit more about how you found these kids? I felt like they represented themselves so well and talked so knowledgeably about their projects. What was that process like?
Foster: “When we were initially setting out to do the film we were looking for kids [who] represent the kind of kids that go to ISEF. Itâ€™s a very diverse range of kids and thatâ€™s what we wanted to show. So we were looking for kids, like I mentioned, at the powerhouse schools like Jericho and duPont Manual. But then we were also looking at some of the kids that just donâ€™t have that kind of support. So thatâ€™s how we wound up with kids like Robbie and Kashfia, even the Brazilian kids Myllena and Gabriel.
So, it was a lot of casting around and trying to find kids. I think [co-director] Christina Costantini called every single qualifier from Brazil and we landed onÂ Myllena and Gabriel because their story was just so powerful. At the end of the day, I think it is a fairly representative cross-section of the kids who were there.: the self-motivated kids, the kids with great mentors, the kids that donâ€™t. So it was very important for us to show all that.”
TV GOODNESS: Do you think there will ever be a time when the world, but maybe mostly the United States, really appreciates these kids and really appreciates science? I feel like we go back and forth. Right nowâ€™s not a great time, but hopefully itâ€™ll come back around. What do you think that will do for these kids and the world?
Dr. McCalla: “I think small clusters of people really do appreciate these kids and science. I just think that some of the louder mouths are the ones that are getting the attention. But I think that there are several people and large groups of people out there rallying for kids, rallying for science and are gonna fight back and make sure that science becomes on the forefront again. So Iâ€™m not worried about it. I think that these kids are also gonna be the advocates for science and theyâ€™re gonna make sure that everything works the way it should.”
TV GOODNESS: Is there anything that didnâ€™t make it into the film that you wished couldnâ€™t made it?
Foster: “Thereâ€™s a bunch of scenes that we wish we wouldâ€™ve included or couldâ€™ve included. There was an amazing scene in Brazil whereÂ Myllena and Gabriel to qualify, just to get to their national fair, the whole community rallied around them and sold raffles to raise money for their trip to the national fair. Thatâ€™s just a beautiful story that we wish we couldâ€™ve included, but for time and because we were covering so many kids, we had to lose some great scenes like that.”
TV GOODNESS: Did you think the film was gonna be this funny?
Foster: “When Christina was talking to me about the science fair, obviously she talked about the science, but mostly she told me about these fun kids and this funny world. So we really wanted to capture these kids as who they are and, obviously, teenagers are just funny. We just wanted to let them be who they are and not just play into the stereotype of what a science fair kid is. These kids come from all walks of life and they have interests outside of science and theyâ€™re three-dimensional people. We just wanted them to be who they were.”
TV GOODNESS: So many of us have the very stereotypical view. Theyâ€™re this way; they donâ€™t like anything but science. So I really appreciated that you got such a great cross-section.
Dr. McCalla: “When I talk to my kids Iâ€™m very plain with them. I talk to them like â€˜Hey. Take it down to whatever level I need to take it to, but they still know who I am and what I do. But Iâ€™m very straightforward with them. Everythingâ€™s real. Thatâ€™s just life.”
TV GOODNESS: And you seem like a great resource and someone they can come talk to not only about science, but whatever they need to talk to you about.
Dr. McCalla: “My kids come to my house for Thanksgiving.”
TV GOODNESS: Is there anything else about this film you want people to know about?
Dr. McCalla: “I think that this could serve as an inspiration for administrators and educators to shape science and how we teach science a little differently. And maybe that instead of always just following the straightforward curriculum proposed that thereâ€™s room to train students differently. Maybe not the â€˜chalk and talk,â€™ but really let them fly and see if we can follow them instead of us always trying to be in the lead.”
TV GOODNESS: I love that. Because even these kids who are super smart about so many things, they donâ€™t necessarily do well in the classroom, which is so heartbreaking.
Dr. McCalla: “But thatâ€™s normal. Sometimes the best minds are outliers. Some of the people who are running everything right now, theyâ€™re outliers.”
Foster: “For us, I think the message we want people to take from the film is that the future is bright. These kids are amazing. While weâ€™re living in a time where many adults are acting like children in the face of global challenges, these kids are really taking up the mantle of science and theyâ€™re showing us the way.”
Edited for space and content.
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