October 26, 2018 – This is a movie that will give you hope for the future in some cases, and utter despair in others. It is about some of the smartest, most dedicated students and teachers in the world competing in an international science and math competition.
On the one hand, you have great teachers and great high schools where students have all the advantages. On the other hand, you have motivated students who succeed despite having all the odds stacked against them in schools without the resources or science priorities to help them. It makes you angry about the vast human potential going to waste in the world.
The most inspiring story in this documentary film is that of Dr. Serena McCalla of Jericho High School in Long Island, New York, and her students. She has an incredible devotion to science education and she relentlessly motivates her students to be the best they can be, the best in the world, in fact.
Dr. McCalla, black, born of immigrant parents, and her team of young award-winning immigrant students are the kind of people the Trump Administration, and white nationalists, would like to keep out of the country. In a competition where it is rare for any school to have more than one student qualify for the prestigious International Science and Engineering Fair competition (ISEF) Jericho High School qualifies nine.
Another inspiring story is that of Myllena and Gabriel from Ceará, a very poor state in Brazil, where the Zika virus is widespread. With almost no help from their poor school, the two students do their own research and against incredible odds identify a protein that can inhibit the spread of the Zika virus.
Perhaps the most depressing story is that of Kashfia Rahman, a Muslim girl at a high school in Brookings, South Dakota. The school spends massive amounts of money on its 0-9 football team, but next to nothing on science labs. Kashfia, whose father is a college professor, finds an unlikely ally at the school, the football coach, who agrees to be her sponsor in the ISEF. Kashfia, who wears a hijab, keeps a low profile in school. Most students are unaware of her high aptitude for science.
Like some of the other students featured in this film, Kashfia sees a problem and tries to come up with a solution. She saves up money from science fair competitions to buy her own portable electroencephalography machine. She uses the EEG device in a novel way, to study the effects of risky behavior on adolescent brains. Despite being a winner in the ISEF, she gets zero recognition at her high school. An expert in the film talks despairingly about the anti-science attitudes that prevail in the United States.
One school where science is strong is at duPont Manual High School in Louisville, Kentucky. Several students from this prestigious science school end up in the ISEF competition, following intense local competitions from their own classmates.
Another inspiring story is that of Ivo Zell of Lorch, Germany. His love for model planes led him to a century-old design, the Flying Wing, long neglected because of its poor maneuverability and stability. Ivo found a way to fix these problems and built his own flying model that he takes to the fair. The tall geeky-looking kid is an endearing presence in the film.
Past winners, including Jack Andraka, the first high school freshman to win the top ISEF award, talk about the competition in the film. Past winners talk about what the award meant to them and how the competition influenced their lives. While most of these kids are great students, some aren't, including West Virginia computer whiz Robbie who hates studying, but loves programming.
Despite the differences in these students, there are some similarities, too. Most of them seem a lot like normal kids. Some are shy, and some have all the confidence in the world, but they all seek acceptance and they all enjoy the companionship of people who share their interests and values.
These are the kids who will lead us into the future, but it is sad to see they are often not given the respect they deserve, except for Robbie, of course, who got a job in the tech industry right out of high school, despite his poor grades. The rest of the U.S. students will have a tougher time getting the research money they need to solve problems. Science research is not a priority in this country anymore. This film rates a C+.
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