May 13, 2011

Humanity at the Super Bowl of science fairs

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The big fear accompanying Judy Dutton’s Science Fair Season is that it’ll be another account of scholastic overachievers driving themselves nuts in pursuing academic excellence. After all, the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair—the “Super Bowl of science fairs” that brings these kids together—teems with college recruiters and riches: Intel ISEF 2009 had over $4 million in prizes and scholarships up for grabs among 1,500 participants.

With so much on the line and so many competitive angles, then, it’s surprising that Dutton’s book is . . . heartwarming. The dozen subjects—six of whom Dutton follows at Intel ISEF; the others are past competitors whose projects were “the stuff of legend in science fair circles”—aren’t necessarily looking to pad their college resumes. Their projects and scientific pursuits have real meaning.

Elizabeth Blanchard turned her leprosy diagnosis into a project that garnered national attention; plus, she was happy to demystify the misunderstood disease. Philip Streich, an 18-year-old scientific mastermind with five patents and a $12 million company, owes his success to being home-schooled by his mom, Amanda. Thirteen-year-old Garrett Yazzie built a solar-powered room and water heater out of soda cans, a sheet of Plexiglas and a 1967 Pontiac radiator because his family’s shabby singlewide trailer desperately needed something to get them through the brutal winters; blankets and coal weren’t cutting it.

Dutton (Secrets from the Sex Lab) has no agenda. You sense that she likes these students and cares about their futures. Her guileless approach works because it paints these young men and women as passionate and driven individuals who embrace their strengths, not narrow-minded robots fueled by grades and ribbons.

There’s a lot of science discussed in Science Fair Season, but that’s not the focus. Science fairs are good for the soul, or to quote Dutton, they “open kids’ eyes to what they can do.” Winning is even better. “It turns on that little voice inside their heads that says, You can do this, even when they swear they can’t,” she explains. “It gives them grit, and guts, and the knowledge that they have the smarts and heart to handle whatever life throws their way.”

The feel-good attitude and heartwarming profiles will make readers smile. More importantly, Dutton’s book reminds us of the need for creativity and individuality in learning. Science, it turns out, is a wonderful place to start.


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