May 16, 2013

ISEF 2013 opens in Phoenix

ISEF 2005 in Phoenix
Almost two decades 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, in Camp Springs, Maryland.

At the time, DC area schools 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 assigned a location next to Avery Grayson’s much more sophisticated physics experiment, but what mine lacked in academic rigor, it more than made up for in pizazz. 

Sadly, my career in science never took off.  The fumes from the applejack I was distilling eventually resulted in my disqualification.  Although amused, the judges didn’t think there was much about my experiment that was particularly new or groundbreaking.

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 is nothing short of amazing!

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 Phoenix Convention Center. And unless you’ve been there, it’s difficult to imagine the rock star atmosphere that accompanied ISEF’s opening ceremonies.

On Monday night, more than 1600 high school students selected from affiliate fairs in approximately 70 countries, regions, and territories came together for the first time to hear Dr. Adam D. Steltzner, of the NASA/Caltech Jet Propulsion Laboratory.

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 $3 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 Phoenix.  Fairfax County alone has a slate of 12 competitors representing Langley High School, TJHSST, Herndon High School, Marshall High School, Paul VI High School, and Madison High School. Arlington has 2 young scientists at ISEF; Loundon County is sending three projects; Montgomery County is represented by 4 projects; the DC STEM Fair has 2 competitors—both from the School Without Walls; and the Prince George Area Science Fair is sending four grand prize winning projects.

To keep the folks back home informed, the Society for Science and the Public (SSP) and Intel encourage you to follow Intel ISEF 2013 on social media (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Flickr). 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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