Science Fair: Watch this Inspirational Documentary from National Geographic

This uplifting new film follows children from their schools all the way to the International Science and Engineering Fair. It opens in UK cinemas on 19 October.

By Jonathan Manning
photographs by Univision
Published 19 Oct 2018, 11:38 BST

A multi-award winning new film that shines a spotlight on the extraordinary phemomenon of school science fairs opens in UK cinemas on October 19.

Made by National Geographic Documentary Films, Science Fair has already won prizes at major film festivals, including the audience award at both Sundance and SXSW.

Science Fairs may have a low profile in the UK, but for school students obsessed with maths, medicine, science and engineering, these are huge competitive events. Participants compete with their ideas at regional and national level, culminating in The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) the ‘Olympics' of Science Fairs, which draws students from 80 countries around the globe.

Students arrive at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) at the Los Angeles Convention Centre.
Photograph by Univision

Science Fair the film

Science Fair, the film, follows the progress of a handful of competitors from as far afield as Germany and Brazil, as they develop their ideas in their school labs, workshops and bedrooms, all the way to ISEF. Their plans are mind-blowing in both scale and ambition, ranging from a new type of wing for an aircraft to a cure for zika virus, to scores of artificial intelligence applications. The ideas presented at the last ISEF saw over 550 finalists seeking patents.

In a school environment where sport and social celebrity typically hog the limelight, Science Fairs present a chance for the creators and inventors, the madcap and the inspired, to seize the glory.

Cristina Costantini directed and produced 'Science Fair', her first feature documentary.
Photograph by Fusion

“School was a dark time for me until I went to science fair and found my community,” said Cristina Costantini, who co-directed Science Fair. “For me personally, Science Fair was super validating at a time when I did not have an outlet. It gave me a platform and confidence.”

She hopes the film will help a new generation of science-obsessed children to fit in and find their voice. When one of the students she had been following wins an award at ISEF, Costantini said it was hard to keep her composure and do her job - "I was weeping," she said.



Science is open to all

Darren Foster directed and produced 'Science Fair', his first feature documentary.
Photograph by Fusion

“We hope that every kid can see a part of themselves in one of the characters we follow and know that science is open to all of them,” said co-director Darren Foster.

One of the key themes of the film is the need for students not simply to have great ideas, but to be able to communicate them clearly and boldly; a point beautifully illustrated in the film when a young girl wearing a hijab tackles a school football coach about an experiment in which she would like to involve his players. Her drive and his reaction provide one of many stand-out moments in Science Fair.


Science Fair as salvation

For student Robbie Barratt, one of the stars of the documentary, science fairs provided a channel for his curiosity and ingenuity at a time when he was struggling with mainstream school curriculum. His grades may have been poor, yet he managed to re-programme a pocket calculator to spew out Shakespearean insults, and using artificial intelligence he taught his computer to rap Kanye West songs.

Robbie Barrett in front of his ISEF presentation board.
Photograph by Univision

“From the age of 11 to 16 my mum would take me and a friend to a recycling centre where we would pick up old computers and then we’d try to ‘Frankenstein’ them to get them to work,” said Barratt.

Barratt’s father confides to the camera that when he was Robbie’s age, he was more into crashing cars than school work.

“The first year I went to a county Science Fair I was the only kid in my school to go,” said Robbie. “It was almost unreal to be recognised for that sort of thing, and it was really cool to meet the judges and all these other students who were so interested in the same things as me. The next year, 12 kids from my school went to the state fair.”

Inspirational teacher, Dr Serena McCalla, pictured at ISEF.
Photograph by Univision

The inspirational teacher

If there’s a hero of the film, and it’s easy to root for all the competitors, many of whom have overcome challenging early years, it’s not a student but a teacher, Dr Serena McCalla, who works tirelessly to support the children from her school, the majority of whom don’t speak English as their first language.

Her commitment leaves her with no social life and no time for dating, but as a ‘science mum’ she encourages and inspires hundreds of students to achieve greatness at ISEF. To have one or two students qualify for ISEF represents a colossal achievement for a school science department – Dr McCalla had nine students qualify this year, and her long-term ambition is for one of her students to go on and win a Nobel prize.

She also has one of the most telling lines in the film – identifying that so many scientists are the children of immigrants.

“As the child of immigrant parents, I know how much sacrificed for me. As the children of immigrants we have to pay it back and pay it forward,” said Dr McCalla.

“I hope this film inspires kids like me who did not know about Science Fair to work harder and come up with brilliant ideas, and then to stand up in front of judges and explain them. It builds confidence for life.”

* Click here to find your local screening of Science Fair.

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