May 9, 2011

ISEF’s Opening Night in Hollywood

I was introduced to the thrill of high school science competition in 1967—17 years after the first National Science Fair took place in 1950.

DC area schools at the time were actively promoting and supporting student involvement in science as a response to the “sputnik” challenge, and like thousands of other budding scientists, I wanted a piece of the action.

My particular experiment involved yards of copper tubing, a “no-fail” mash recipe, and a Bunsen burner. Sadly, the fumes from the applejack I was distilling eventually resulted in my disqualification from the event and my career in science never took off.

Needless to say, much has changed since I cooked up a home recipe involving apples and yeast. A lit Bunsen burner would never be tolerated at a science fair, and the level of scientific sophistication among today’s high school students is almost beyond description.

But basic scientific curiosity and desire to compete on what has become an international stage for young scientists remain driving forces behind Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), which opened yesterday at the Los Angeles Convention Center. And unless you’ve been there, it’s difficult to imagine the rock star atmosphere that will accompany ISEF’s opening ceremonies.

Tonight, more than 1500 high school students selected from 443 affiliate fairs in 65 countries, regions, and territories will come together for the first time to hear Jeffery Katzenberg, CEO of Dream Works Animation, give the keynote address.

And I guarantee the place will be rocking.

Here’s a secret: ISEF is fun. It’s a week of drama, excitement, and new friends. It’s also the most amazing forum in the world for high school students to showcase their talents and be recognized for groundbreaking independent research.

Colleges and universities recruiting science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) students love the credential at any level of competition—local to international. They’re all looking for the next Nobel Laureates or Rocket Boys, and this is where they find them!

And, there’s serious money at stake. Dozens of sponsors offer prize money and really amazing scholarships from corporations, nonprofit organizations, a host of federal agencies, as well as a number of colleges and universities.

In LA, the top prizes include the $75,000 Gordon E. Moore Award given by the Intel Foundation in honor of the Intel co-founder and retired chairman and CEO. Two additional top winning projects will receive $50,000 each.

Best of Category winners will take home $5000 scholarships and $1000 grants for their school and the ISEF-affiliated fairs they represent. Grand Prize awards will be presented in each of 17 ISEF categories (and for teams) in increments ranging from $500 to $3000 for first place. In total, more than $4 million is up for grabs.

Local regional fairs including Montgomery, Fairfax, Arlington, and Prince Georges Counties, as well DC, Baltimore, and Richmond will be sending students to Los Angeles. Fairfax County alone has a slate of 12 competitors representing Chantilly, Fairfax, Langley, Paul VI, South County Secondary, and Thomas Jefferson High Schools. Montgomery County is represented by 4 students; the District of Columbia has 2 competitors; and the Prince George Area Science Fair is sending 2 students.

To keep the folks back home informed of events, the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) and Intel are piloting “streaming video” of the Opening Ceremony, the Special Awards Ceremony, and the Grand Awards Ceremony. This service comes with a cost, and details are provided on the hosting site.

You can otherwise keep up with daily events and get the first word on winners by logging on to the SSP homepage or the Inspired by Education website.

News is also available on the SSP Facebook page, and interviews with select ISEF finalists will be “live streamed” without charge from 10 a.m.-11 a.m. Pacific Time, on Thursday May 12.

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