Best students, best ideas in ‘Science Fair’

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“Science Fair,” a National Geographic documentary film, comes to the M.V. Film Center as a special Science on Screen presentation Wednesday, March 20. It’s a celebration of science and teenagers well worth the viewing, and Kashfia Rahman, one of the students in the film, will attend the screening. A M.V. International Film Festival favorite, “Smuggling Hendrix,” returns for screening through this weekend.

Directed by the Emmy-nominee team of Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, “Science Fair” tracks nine teenagers whose science projects take them to the 2017 International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) in Los Angeles. Considering the current antiscience attitude of our country, it’s a pleasure to see both how talented these kids are and the emphasis on science. The ISEF awards are based on creativity, scientific thought, thoroughness, skill, and clarity of presentation.

Jake Andraka, who won the $75,000 Gordon Moore first prize in 2012 at age 15 for his research on detecting pancreatic and other cancers, appears periodically as a narrator. “It gives you a platform to kick off your research,” he says. “It will change your life.” The first winner came in 1942, and ISEF grew in importance in the 1950s and 1960s. Six million students worldwide now compete for ISEF awards in 22 categories, and as many as 1,700 go on to the final event.

Each of the students spotlighted is interesting beyond his or her scientific brilliance. Among them is Anjali Chadha, a child prodigy who notices that it’s boys who get the attention. Her research project concerns development of a sensor for detecting arsenic in drinking water to reduce the risk of cancer.

From Brookings, S.D., Kashfia Rahman attended a high school where football is the main preoccupation. Concerned about the risky behaviors of classmates, she researched how such behavior affects emotions and cognition in youth. Her high school did not recognize or pay tribute to her success in the field of science.

In a telephone interview, she said, “I’ll be talking about the reason I went to the Science Fair, and how I got there. It was pretty unusual because there were no science teachers willing to take on a mentorship role for me.” She picked the football coach to be her mentor. Now a student at Harvard, she says she is passionate about sharing her path to research and advocating for women and minorities in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) education.

Millena Braz de Silva and Gabriel de Moura Martins come from a small village in Brazil. Their study of how the Zika virus affects so many in their community earned them a place at the ISEF finals. The German student Ivo Zell has reconceptualized fixed-wing aircraft, and won a prize at the ISEF awards ceremony. Robbie Barrat from West Virginia nearly flunked his high school classes. It was probably because instead he retrieved junked computers, and has used them to help design artificial intelligence algorithms like one that collects Shakespearean swear words.

The important role teachers play is illustrated by Dr. Serena McCalla, who sent nine of her Long Island charges, all of whom come from immigrant families, to ISEF. “Science Fair” points out that it’s very often immigrants who succeed as these exceptional students. McCalla is a tough taskmaster, but one admired by her protégés. She suggested that even if her students don’t place in the final ISEF competitions, they are still winners. For many, it’s the first time they have the chance to interact with like-minded students and experts in their fields of endeavor.

Costantini and Foster emphasize that these students are not just scientific superheroes, but ordinary teenagers who, for instance, enjoy going to a dance at the fair. In addition to interviews with the students they focus on, the directors structure the film around the run-up to the winners, building the drama around how the students prepare for and feel about their chances of winning. The M.V. Regional High School’s science fair will follow the “Science Fair” screening on March 22, 23, and 24.

 

‘Smuggling Hendrix’

The title of this comedy makes it sound a little like a serious drama about immigrants. Instead it’s a story about a dog named Jimi and his Greek Cypriot owner Yiannis (Adam Bousdoukos). Jimi escapes from Yiannis and crosses the border into the Turkish side of Nicosia, the divided capital of this divided country. A musician on the skids, Yiannis aims to emigrate to the Netherlands when Jimi foils his plans.

Director Marios Piperides wields a light touch to explain the complicated politics of Cyprus, as well as Greek Cypriot Yiannis’ connections to the Turkish side of the country. One of the movie’s sillier sight gags is the No Borders Lingerie Shop, full of underwear on mannequins. For a price, Yiannis enlists the support of a Turkish Cypriot smuggler, Tuberk (Özgür Karadeniz), but the path to liberation of Jimi is full of unexpected ups and downs.

For information and tickets about these and other films scheduled to play at the Film Center, see mvfilmsociety.com.