In June, I wrote about the documentary “Inventing Tomorrow,” about groups of students from around the world attending an international science fair in Los Angeles. I said that the film was one of the more entertaining and engaging education documentaries I had seen in a while. But I also noted there was another documentary this year on the same topic.
That other film, “Science Fair,” produced by the National Geographic Society, opens in one New York City theater Friday and in other cities throughout the fall. “Science Fair,” directed by Cristina Constantini and Darren Foster, has the same idea as “Inventing Tomorrow.” It follows several groups around to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, meeting them in their home states or countries, watching as they nervously prepare to explain their projects to the judges and interact awkwardly with their peers, and waiting for the payoff—the awards presentations.
Both films have their quirks, but ultimately they promote science education in a lively way. Good thing it’s not a competition, right? Except it was, as the two films went head to head at the Sundance Film Festival last winter. “Science Fair” won the award as festival favorite.
While “Inventing Tomorrow” explored in depth the science behind the science fair projects by its featured subjects (which included topics such as tin ore processing, crowd-source monitoring of bodies of water for contamination, investigating ground soil for arsenic contamination from tsunamis, and an idea for photocatalytic ceramic paint to purify air), “Science Fair” has a lighter touch.
We meet Kashfia, a Muslim girl at a sports-obsessed South Dakota high school, whose science fair successes go unrecognized but who forms unlikely ties with the school’s football coach as her science fair mentor. Robbie is a math whiz from West Virginia who nearly fails his algebra class but scrounges computer parts in junkyards for his artificial intellience project.
Meanwhile, Dupont Manual High School in Louisville, Ky., supplies both Anjali, a young prodigy who doesn’t let a defeat in the regional fair stop her from finding another qualifying competition and punching her ticket to Los Angeles; and the team of Ryan, Harsha, and Abraham, who focus on their innovative web-connected stethoscope.
One star of “Science Fair” turns out to be an adult mentor—Serena McCalla, the research coordinator at the Jericho, N.Y., school district, on Long Island. She had nine students qualify for ISEF and predicts that some day one of her students will win a Nobel prize
“Science Fair” has some fun footage of vintage fairs, the kind many viewers of a certain age will remember from their school days. But as two documentaries show, science fairs are now a big, international deal, with mind-blowing research performed by high school students.
If you see only one documentary about the ISEF this year ... Well, don’t feel like you have to limit yourself to one or the other. Both “Inventing Tomorrow” and “Science Fair” are inspiring and fun.
A version of this news article first appeared in the Education and the Media blog.