Whiz Kids: The Movie

Last night, the Intel Science Talent Search announced its top 10 winners at a gala celebration, here in D.C. The premier competition for high school scientists, STS brings exceptional young researchers to Washington where they undergo a range of interviews and reveal their discoveries. Along the way, they are introduced to movers and shakers in politics (such as Barack Obama, this year) and science.

“It’s a life-changing experience” for every finalist, observes San Francisco-based documentary filmmaker Tom Shepard. He should know. As a 1987 STS finalist, he presented data from his pheromone studies involving ants.

When Sandbar Pictures decided to make a film about STS’ers, it turned to Shepard as its director. He and his crew followed a number of entrants throughout the year leading up to the 2007 competition.

More than three years in the making (and completed just six weeks ago), this new 80-minute independent film – Whiz Kids — makes film stars out of three 17-year-old researchers as they conduct experiments, express doubts about whether they’re good enough to become an STS finalist, and ultimately learn whether they are. (Hint: They don’t all succeed.) Each young researcher, however, ultimately proves a winner and serves as a role model for coming generations.

Basically a coming-of-age film (showing that science, like sports, can help a student make it into the college big leagues), this movie also offers an insider’s view of some of the difficult paths that kids traverse on their way to STS. What many outsiders don’t realize is that this is no “science fair,” but a contest based on knowledge and novel findings — both of which reflect what usually turns out to be years of individual, painstaking research. No wonder this competition is sometimes referred to as the student Nobels.

A little background on “us” and them
In 1942, our parent organization (until last year known as Science Service Inc.) developed STS. Our small nonprofit still runs the renowned competition. So I, like every member of Science News, has developed an intimate familiarity with STS (indeed, judges for the 1,500 to 2,000 entries each winter descend upon the building in which we work as they toil through the better part of a week poring over details of each project — sometimes borrowing a writer’s or editor’s office to do so).

Whiz Kids, then, feels at times like a home movie for us. Our president and board members appear in it, as do colleagues in the science-education arm of our organization. We see a discussion about STS finalists as the judges sit around the same table at which we writers hold our weekly story meetings.

But even we at Science News have had only the briefest glimpses over the years of what some students have been willing to invest to become an STS finalist. The film shows us that and more.
— Take Pakistani-born paleontologist Harmain Khan: He repeatedly pleaded with a scientist (who ultimately gave in) to let him make regular, many-hours-long commutes to her research center for access to very specialized equipment. There, he spent hundreds of hours readying his materials, fossilized crocodile teeth, for examination.
— Or Ecuadorian-American Ana Cisneros who spent years investigating how to fool crop-plant roots so that they won’t recognize adjacent plants and stop growing. Her studies led her to an out-of-state internship to improve her techniques.
— And environmental scientist Kelydra Welcker. Her dad — a former Dupont chemist working at a West Virginia plant that makes PFOA, an ingredient in Teflon products — has unusually high concentrations of the potentially toxic pollutant in his blood. So Kelydra spent years investigating whether the plant had been filtering out as much PFOA from its industrial wastes as it said it was (since waste outfalls enter the water that neighboring communities use for drinking). She also developed an alternative filtering technique using non-exotic materials — research for which she would later get patents. She was also the subject of a Science News for Kids feature prior to her participation in the movie.

These kids slogged through a lot to get their data. And at least the ones in the film did it on their own. Their stories prove truly inspiring. And the Whiz Kids production team wants to put film segments that went unused to work in helping encourage more students to appreciate science, and maybe even become STS’ers themselves.

Tomorrow… Whiz Kids: Its science and outreach

TEEN STAR Ana, who spent her high school years researching plant roots, went on to become class valedictorian. Whiz Kids
STS ALUM The film’s director has a keen understanding of the competition, having taken part himself. Whiz Kids
OKAY…ACTION! Filming for Whiz Kids took place over a little more than a year and followed nearly a dozen young scientists. Whiz Kids

Janet Raloff is the Editor, Digital of Science News Explores, a daily online magazine for middle school students. She started at Science News in 1977 as the environment and policy writer, specializing in toxicology. To her never-ending surprise, her daughter became a toxicologist.

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