BLOG: City of Angels welcomes the world’s biggest global science fair

Hundreds of young scientists arrive for the start of the 2011 Intel ISEF

LOS ANGELES — By late tonight, over 1,500 high school students from around the world will have converged in Los Angeles to compete in the world’s biggest international precollege science competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, which runs from May 8 to May 13 at the L.A. Convention Center. Walking around the exhibits hall to see the students set up their projects and soaking up the science vibe, I’m struck by how teenagers are teenagers — science geniuses or not. But it’s also obvious that these teens have a flair of their own.

This vibe was on full display May 8 on my flight from D.C. to L.A. Instead of the usual teenage chatter, the high-schoolers around me were gossiping about high-energy physics, SAT scores and funny things the young kids they were mentoring in robotics said.

The teens bring their own special fashion flavor to Los Angeles, too. Instead of threads that evoke a “You’re not wearing that outside, are you?” screech from their parents, these bright young things are sporting T-shirts emblazoned with periodic table elements. Another must-have item is the ISEF version of a rap star’s bling: a lanyard studded with pins from different countries, traded with new and old friends from around the globe. At this point in the competition, ISEF-savvy students have virtually no empty real estate on their name tags.

On the streets of downtown L.A., exuberant students schlep huge contraptions across the wide boulevards — I saw one guy carrying something that looked like a metallic xylophone.  (If I cross paths with it again, I’ll report back on its true identity.)

Today is the last day to set up projects for the judges, and the students are frantically putting the finishing touches on their displays. Inside the convention center, the sounds of drills, rigorous duct taping and front-end loaders charge the atmosphere. It’s a lot of work setting up some of the more elaborate projects, but getting them here posed some problems too.

Airport security screeners don’t always welcome elaborate, difficult to explain science projects. One Jordanian student told me that he caught heat for the tangles of wires and batteries that make up the new kind of walker he invented. His motorized walker removes the need for a person to hoist the walker with each step. Eventually he and his fellow travelers placated security personnel and the walker, wires and batteries arrived intact, ready to demo for the judges.

Soon, these students will shift from set-up into full ISEF mode, wowing judges, the public (projects will be on view on Thursday, May 12) and each other with their projects, meeting people from around the world and talking serious science. Stay tuned for the latest from the meeting as the week progresses, including a panel of Nobel scientists here to chat with tomorrow’s science stars.

For more information, visit the Intel ISEF web page.

Laura Sanders

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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