The science whizzes of our future

'Whiz Kids' follows teenage scientists in grueling competition for $100,000 prize.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive on

Last week I saw a screening of Whiz Kids, a documentary about three passionate teenage scientists who vie to compete in our country’s oldest, most prestigious science competition—now called the Intel Science Talent Search. The film follows the students as they prepare their science for competition (projects deal with fossil dating, pollution and plant growth) while struggling with issues such as personal sacrifice, class, success and failure.

At the screening, co-sponsored by the National Academy of Sciences and Society for Science and the Public, director and co-producer Tom Shepard said he’s on a mission to figure out how to make science more accessible to the general public.

“Young kids are natural born scientists—even toddlers—in their need to ask questions and push the boundaries. Unfortunately as they go through school, that curiosity gets squashed. We thought if we could humanize the experience of science through young people, who are going through a lot, that might make science more accessible to everyone.”

Shepard spent the better part of a year traveling around the country and following curious, determined teens who are doing research, participating in science fairs and active in science internships. He followed six students for nearly two years. Shepard found teenagers already working in universities and government labs, sometimes alongside Nobel Prize-winning scientists.

Shepard was a Science Talent Search finalist in 1987 (when it was sponsored by Westinghouse) and said that in junior high and high school, science fairs were his world. He writes on ScientificBlogging, “As a young person, science gave me a voice and an identity. I want to use that experience to broadcast the voices of the next generation of scientists. From what I've witnessed in making this film, there is good reason to feel hopeful about the future.”

Profiled in the Whiz Kids are Ana Cisneros, a first-generation Ecuadorian American; Kelydra Welcker, daughter of a former DuPont chemist from West Virginia; and Pakistani-born Harmain Khan.

The Science Talent Search began in 1942, and each year more than 2,000 students compete for prizes totaling more than $1.5 million. In the end, 40 finalists travel to Washington to present their research to top scientists and vie for a $100,000 grand prize.

Here's a look:

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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