By: Kevin Jordan
You gotta love the idealism.
In an effort to watch more documentaries this year than the zero I watched last year, Science Fair is the second I have watched (the first being the excellent Won’t You Be My Neighbor) so far. I was very interested in Science Fair because I can relate to the high school kids portrayed in the film. They are highly competitive, scientifically-minded perfectionists who tend to avoid the stereotypical high school bullshit. They are more concerned with improving airplane designs, inventing arsenic detectors for drinking water, or enhancing machine learning algorithms than who kissed whom at so-and-so’s party last night. Ah, to be young and nerdy again (and, yes, I was nerdy as well, though I was able to hide it a bit as a baseball player).
What I liked most about the film is the unbridled optimism these kids have for their ideas and the world. The film focuses on nine kids from around the world, following each of them from their local competitions to the big competition at the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). We get to listen to them explain their ideas, learn who they are as people, and watch them navigate a competition that appears to be more cutthroat than any high school sport in America. What I liked least about the film was constantly thinking about how reality would kick almost every one of these kids in the crotch, whether it be a big chemical corporation squashing a device to combat pollution, politicians refusing to champion medical research funding in favor of pharmaceutical lobbyists, or that a large chunk of the population is now convinced that science is the spawn of Satan. Ah, to be young and naive again.
Science Fair also highlights a couple of coaches – the educators assigned to sponsor the students through the process. One of them reminded me of the familiar egotistical sports coaches famous for berating children while ESPN gleefully exploits them on camera. This science fair coach is the educator version of a helicopter parent, constantly preening to the cameras. In her defense, she is brilliant (multiple degrees including in hermatology and microbiology) and is pushing kids towards science and technology fields that may help all of mankind rather than entertaining mankind by smashing into each other at high speeds. I will give her the benefit of the doubt here because we really, really need more scientists.
The other coach – literally a high school football coach – agreed to sponsor the lone ISEF hopeful at his school. That guy is a genuine hero, because he admittedly knows nothing about her ideas, but wants to support her ambitions just the same (Side note: The science teachers at her school had no interest in sponsoring her – the football coach was the only one who said yes). It is utterly disappointing to learn that this particular high school completely ignores the student’s achievements and celebrates only the marginal athletic successes. Ah, to be young and shoved aside for sports.
After two excellent documentaries, I am really starting to look forward to more, which is not something I would have said last year. I have no idea what makes one documentary better than another from a film standpoint, but I do know that the key starts with being interested in the topic being discussed. As long as the film does not have an obvious bias or is filled with easily debunked garbage, it is probably worth a watch if you care about its issue. Ah, to be young and idealistic (he said as he neared forty years old).
Rating: Do not ask for any money back and consider donating to your school’s science departments instead of stadiums.