To be nerdy these days is to be cool. Pop culture’s adoration of nerds is ubiquitous in this era of high-tech gadgets. You can see it everywhere from The Big Bang Theory to The Bachelorette to the Scripps National Spelling Bee, the latter of which is broadcast on ESPN.
Which is why it’s curious that competitions like the International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF)—whose contestants each year vie for more than $5 million total in prizes, including $75,000 for the top winner—haven’t quite captured the public imagination. That may soon change. A new documentary follows a handful of teens who participated in last year’s ISEF, along with the no-nonsense Long Island, New York, teacher who managed to help nine of her students qualify for the competition.
Science Fair, which was released on Friday and will be shown in theaters across the country, offers a peek into the otherwise unfamiliar world of science competitions. The filmmakers, the former investigative journalists Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, shadowed the students as they built prototypes and presented their tri-fold poster boards to judges with precision and poise. But they also caught the teens in more candid and endearing moments of brilliance and awkward adolescence. In one scene, for example, a girl on the Long Island team mocks her coach’s expression. In another, a trio of boys from Kentucky, whose project consists of an electronic, 3-D-printed stethoscope that helps doctors better detect heart abnormalities, is shown passed out on the airplane en route to ISEF; they had their senior prom the previous night. Then there’s the scene in which Robbie Barrat, an artistic math genius from West Virginia with abysmal grades, shows off his Hawaiian-shirt collection. He started wearing the colorful, printed button-ups to competitions, he explains, “because it’s as casual you can get while still having a collar.”