When you were in in high school, were you hanging out at the mall or developing new medical diagnostics?
Some students are doing the latter, and thanks to a pair of new documentaries out this year, we can travel with them to what's widely seen as the Olympics of research competitions, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. The fair gives these students opportunities to earn acclaim, advance their work, and make friends.
But it's at risk. Without a new source of funding, the ISEF could cease to exist.
The extraordinary students who participate in today's top science fairs do groundbreaking, graduate-level research - studying adolescent mental health, for example, or inventing low-cost water filters and new aircraft.
Their final products are outstanding. But equally amazing are the roads they take to get there.
Sundance audience favorite "Science Fair," released this month by National Geographic Documentary Films, gives us a window into the process. Some of the competitors overcome enormous obstacles: One team from an impoverished area in Brazil, for example, made it to ISEF for its work on combating the Zika virus. Likewise, "Inventing Tomorrow," which premiered last month, tracks students whose science is inspired by environmental threats in their home countries.
Being a teenage genius brings with it certain ironies, too: "Science Fair" follows a student who does poorly in math class because he is so busy doing math research.
For all these students, science is a passion. Competitions like the ISEF give them something to aspire to — and can also be life-changing. In part, of course, that's because of the recognition and award money on the table. For many — especially those from lower-income areas (or countries) — ISEF can be exactly the boost needed on the way to a better college or university.
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Moreover, for many high-school science whizzes, ISEF is the first opportunity to be surrounded by students who share their love of research. And the adults at the fair — scientific experts who serve as judges and ambassadors — can provide crucial advice and connections that help the students down the line. The whole event is an intercultural exchange, as well, drawing students from more than 75 countries, regions, and territories.
And ISEF doesn't just touch the lives of the students who compete there. The presence of fairs like ISEF drives a broader program of student research across the world. (This too figures prominently into "Science Fair": one of the film's heroines is Serena McCalla, a teacher in Jericho, New York, who has built a top science fair team filled with immigrants.)
I know the value of science fairs firsthand, since they helped put me on the path to the career I have today. I was lucky enough to attend a high school with teachers who encouraged research, as well as the Center for Excellence in Education's Research Science Institute at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. I then competed at ISEF, and the people I met there have been a part of my life ever since.
That's why I judge at ISEF every year I can, and why I recently joined the National Leadership Council of Society for Science & the Public, the nonprofit that runs the fair. And more broadly, it's why I want scientific research — and the opportunities that come with it — to become ever more accessible to students worldwide.
But we're at risk of taking a step backward. In early 2017, Intel said that it plans to drop its support of ISEF after the 2019 fair. Without new sponsorship, ISEF and the spillovers it creates could dwindle or vanish.
So American corporations (and international ones, too), please step up. The scientists of tomorrow need you. Go watch "Science Fair" and "Inventing Tomorrow," and you'll see what I mean.
Scott Duke Kominers is the MBA Class of 1960 Associate Professor of Business Administration at Harvard Business School, and a faculty affiliate of the Harvard Department of Economics. Previously, he was a junior fellow at the Harvard Society of Fellows and the inaugural research scholar at the Becker Friedman Institute for Research in Economics at the University of Chicago.