Published Oct 29, 2018Science Fair, the new documentary produced by National Geographic, doesn't start with a hypothesis, but with an assertion. The filmmakers set off into the culture of the world's biggest high school science fair, content to bask in the promise of a new generation and the hope that comes with new perspectives.
The event is the International Science and Engineering Fair, or ISEF, referred to early on as "the Olympics of science fairs." The film opens with a winner of Best in Fair breaking down with joy at the news in front of a huge hall of people, showing how seriously the students can take this and how big a deal the fair is. Over half-a-century old, the event gathers hundreds of projects from around the world to come to the United States to compete.
Science Fair profiles than half-a-dozen projects, following them from home and school environments on to ISEF. We meet individual students from around the States, as well as a pair from Brazil and one from Germany. They're shot in question-and-answer sessions, filmed before, during and after the fair, that are cut into footage of them preparing and demonstrating their projects, along with first-hand footage of fairs.
Just hearing about some of these projects is fascinating. From Zika research to new takes on aeronautic designs to measuring the effects on the brain of risky behaviour, many of these students are showing real creativity, are doing interesting work, and are interested in a common good and improving the world. Some show less obvious public utility than others; one kid talks about his rejected suggestion for his group, a camera you'd stick into a steak that would connect to a smartphone to see if it's cooked.
There's also Robbie, whose real curiosity for artificial intelligence and machine learning manifests in an algorithm that generates Kanye West lyrics. "Don't think that the machine is racist or anything," he says while showing it off for the camera. His open and casually insightful style is a good vehicle for looking into the specifics of participating in the ISEF, from what it's like to be judged for a full day to the fads in poster design.
Robbie is also a bit of an outlier, as a white kid in a film filled with a lot of first- and second-generation Americans of colour. This includes Kashfia, the 16-year-old daughter of parents who immigrated from Bangladesh and came to live in South Dakota. Her school is introduced as football-focused, with three gyms and no wins for the team on the year. The soft-spoken Kashfia finds, in science and ISEF, the chance to be heard, seen and appreciated. Her story ties directly into the part of the movie that believes in the American dream, that says hard work for new citizens can mean opportunity for their children that could wind up enriching the world.
Elsewhere, Robbie's dad says that, whatever else, computers and the ISEF is better than having Robbie out wrecking cars, and that he himself wrecked plenty in his youth. (Robbie's dad might miss wrecking cars.) Science Fair, in part, looks at the hope that children will be better than what came before and how they'll live up to that pressure and promise.