May 15, 2012

ISEF Opens Doors for Young Scientists

Seventeen years after the first National Science Fair took place in 1950, I was introduced to the thrill of science competition at the Crossland High School Science Fair.

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 experiment involved yards of copper tubing, a carefully researched “no-fail” mash recipe, and a Bunsen burner. My project was located next to Avery Grayson’s much more sophisticated physics experiment, but what it lacked in academic rigor, it more than made up for in pizazz. 

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.

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 this week at the David L. Lawrence Convention Center, in Pittsburgh. And unless you’ve been there, it’s difficult to imagine the rock star atmosphere that accompanied ISEF’s opening ceremonies.

Last night, more than 1500 high school students selected from 446 affiliate fairs in approximately 70 countries, regions, and territories came together for the first time to hear Benjamin Gulak, founder and CEO of BPG motors and three-time ISEF finalist, give the keynote address.

And I guarantee the place was 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.

This year, 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 Pittsburgh.  Fairfax County alone has a slate of 15 competitors representing Chantilly, Fairfax, Langley, and Thomas Jefferson High Schools. Arlington is has 2 young scientists at ISEF; Montgomery County is represented by 4 students; the DC STEM Fair (a new name for this year) has 2 competitors—both from the School Without Walls; and the Prince George Area Science Fair is sending four grand prize winners.

To keep the folks back home informed, the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) and Intel are  “streaming video” from various events. You can otherwise keep up with daily activities and get the first word on winners by logging on to the SSP homepage.

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