Science Fair

Movie review by
Sandie Angulo Chen, Common Sense Media
Science Fair Movie Poster Image
Compelling, entertaining docu about teen science geniuses.
  • PG
  • 2018
  • 90 minutes

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The parents' guide to what's in this movie.

Educational Value

Viewers will learn about all of the science projects highlighted in the documentary, how they address real-world issues. Lots of science, engineering terminology, but students all explain their projects clearly to judges and filmmakers. A lot of follow-up about how entrants have been able to progress with their projects after the fair.

Positive Messages

Extremely positive messages about importance of STEM education, transformative power of innovation in science. Shows how young people, students can make a difference, overcome obstacles. Encourages communities and schools to praise, acknowledge scholars as enthusiastically as they recognize athletes. Themes include communication, curiosity, perseverance, and teamwork.

Positive Role Models & Representations

Diverse group of featured students exemplify determination, dedication, ambition required of ISEF competitors. These science rock stars know they're intelligent but prove themselves again and again with research, innovation. Kashfia is a great example of how someone who's underappreciated by her school community still finds her voice through science projects. Brazilian duo shows how an underprivileged background doesn't have to be a deterrent to achieving goals. West Virginia competitor is an example of how sometimes kids who don't do well in traditional school settings can still be incredibly smart.

Violence & Scariness

Possibly disturbing footage of babies/kids with microcephaly due to the Zika virus.

Sexy Stuff

References to flirting and kissing at ISEF parties.

Language
Consumerism

Products/brands seen (in documentary context) include Apple iPhone, MacBook, Acer, JW Marriott, IBM ThinkPad, Patagonia, Under Armour, Texas Instruments, Louis Vuitton.

Drinking, Drugs & Smoking

What parents need to know

Parents need to know that Science Fair is a fascinating, inspiring documentary about teens competing in the prestigious Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which is held each year; more than 70 nations are represented by 1,700 entrants. Like Inventing Tomorrow and Spellbound, the movie explores the backstories of a select group of student competitors, from affluent teens at a science-focused high school to a shy girl from South Dakota to two Brazilian teens from a poor rural village. The movie is fine for middle elementary-age kids and up; younger ones may not understand the science described and might find a brief description of microcephaly, with footage of an afflicted baby, disturbing. It's likely to inspire science-loving students to find ways to think big, pursue research, and make ISEF a goal for their STEM interests. There are also strong themes of curiosity, communication, perseverance, and teamwork.

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What's the story?

SCIENCE FAIR is a documentary about the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), "the Olympics of science fairs," which takes place annually in the United States and brings together student scientists from around the world. Directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, the film follows brilliant teen scientists from Kentucky, New York, South Dakota, West Virginia, Brazil, and Germany as they compete against more than 1,700 other entrants from 70 nations at the 2017 ISEF in Los Angeles. The students' backgrounds range from affluent and privileged to first-generation immigrants to impoverished, and their projects span everything from environmental, pharmaceutical, and medical innovations to aviation and artificial intelligence.

Is it any good?

This fascinating, inspiring documentary about brilliant teens competing in the Olympics of science fairs should be mandatory viewing for all young students. This is the second documentary (after Inventing Tomorrow) released in 2018 about the illustrious international science competition, and it's just as riveting. Taking a more domestic focus, Science Fair showcases students from across the country (as well as Germany and Brazil), some of whom definitely aren't lacking in confidence or ego (e.g., the 14-year-old junior who waxes poetic about how jealous others are of her many talents and gifts). But her self-possession is well-earned, because the students featured in the film are all intellectual outliers. (Plus, her male classmates, a fun and opposites-attract trio of personalities, provide the documentary with comic relief.)

Myllena and Gabriel, who hail from Brazil, are wonderful examples of how even underprivileged kids from the developing world can have a huge impact on the sciences. Their work on a Zika cure is an amazing pharmaceutical discovery. German student Ivo is middle-class, and his project about an improved flying wing is a remarkable aviation innovation. Then there's Kashfia, a hijab-wearing Muslim teen from South Dakota who's all but invisible in her large, sports-dominated high school. Despite qualifying for ISEF before, her school hasn't even acknowledged her with a public announcement, much less the fanfare reserved for athletic teams (even those with losing records). Her neuroscience project about the adolescent brain is, like all the others, an impressive achievement. A Jericho, New York, high school sends several students, all of whom are the children of immigrants, to ISEF. Their teacher/adviser, Dr. McCall, is the kind of superstar educator students remember forever. Not all of the featured entrants "place" or earn awards, but they all move on to bigger and better prospects and reinforce the necessity of stronger STEM education in the United States.

Talk to your kids about ...

  • Families can talk about how the featured students show curiosity, perseverance, and teamwork. Why are these important character strengths? How are the students role models?

  • What do you think of a female competitors' comment that it's easier for guys to be popular and super smart? Do you think that's true? If so, why or why not?

  • How does the movie affect your perception of science fairs? Why are they important? Research the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair for more examples of award-winning projects.

  • What are your thoughts on the South Dakota high school that never acknowledged their ISEF-winning student, while recognizing even losing sports teams? Why do you think sports are held above science in some schools/communities?

Movie details

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