When you walk the hallways of the average American high school, most students can point out the quarterback who won the big game. Far fewer are likely to identify their classmate who might be on the cusp of a breakthrough in medicine, or developing a prototype to make our lives easier.
Cristina Costantini knows what it’s like to dwell in that obscurity. More than a decade before she co-directed the crowd-pleasing documentary Science Fair, she was a science nerd during her high school years in Wisconsin.
“There are people who don’t realize the brilliant minds they have in their own schools,” Costantini said by phone. “We wanted to celebrate the outsiders.”
The film is love letter of sort to her own experiences, weaving together the stories of a handful of qualifiers for the International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s most prestigious youth science competition.
“It’s a world that I recall very fondly. It totally changed my life,” Costantini said. “It’s full of these quirky, brilliant, hilarious little characters. For a documentary filmmaker, it’s a dream. It’s an embarrassment of riches because there are so many good stories.”
Costantini and her directing partner, Darren Foster, had the budget for just 75 days of filming, yet managed to track nine competitors and one teacher on three continents leading up to the 2017 ISEF in Los Angeles. The projects there resulted in almost 500 patents, by the way.
“While we were interested in the science behind the projects, we were mostly looking for human stories that were compelling,” said Costantini, whose background is primarily in broadcast journalism. “Some of them are from the best schools in the world, with the most resources and the best teachers, and some of them are from these very underdog backgrounds.”
In the latter category, the film follows two classmates from a school in Brazil that only has enough money to afford one laptop. Then there’s the story of an introverted Muslim girl in small-town South Dakota who can’t find a faculty sponsor for her project studying adolescent brain functions, so she’s paired with the head football coach.
Costantini said it was important to balance showing the students’ painstaking research and preparation for ISEF, but also the more lighthearted and mischievous moments in their everyday lives.
“We didn’t want to put them on a pedestal and have them be these perfect little children. They’re brilliant, but they’re teenagers at the end of the day,” she said. “It’s very much inspired by my memories of the fair and the kids that I met.”
The filmmakers hope one takeaway from Science Fair is simply greater recognition for students whose achievements are too often overlooked, especially during a time when funding for STEM education tends to be at a premium.
“They’re making lifelong friendships. I loved the community and the collaboration,” Costantini said. “It’s hard for me to think of a more inspiring place.”