Review: Science fair season: Twelve kids, a robot named scorch, and what it takes to win

Book by Judy Dutton

If we believe the stereotype, high school heroes are athletes, drama kids, and prom queens. So-called “nerds,” meanwhile, are left to toil in relative obscurity over their science experiments and math equations. In Science Fair Season, Brooklyn-based writer Dutton blows that well-worn stereotype apart. Following 12 teens to the Super Bowl of science fairs—the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF) brings together 1,500 kids from over 50 countries, and offers up to $4 million in prizes and scholarships—she shows that science can be exciting, creative, even glamorous.

Take, for example, 14-year-old Taylor Wilson, also known as the “Radioactive Whiz Kid,” who shows up at Intel ISEF with a showstopper: a nuclear fusion reactor. Or BB Blanchard, a pretty and popular teen, whose science project on leprosy—a condition that’s highly treatable today, but still misunderstood—was inspired by the fact that she was diagnosed with it herself. We also meet Philip Streich, whose project, which found a way to mass-produce graphene (a cheaper replacement for silicone), spawned a multi-million- dollar company. And Canadian Kayla Cornale, who developed a way to teach her autistic cousin to communicate with music.

There’s often more than just prestige at stake. Katlin Hornig, a farm girl who creates a “horse therapy” program to help police officers deal with post-traumatic stress, pins her hopes on scholarship money so she can go to veterinary school. And Garrett Yazzie, who lives on a Navajo Indian reserve, builds a solar-powered heater out of junk, warming up the trailer he shares with his family.

Dutton follows these whiz kids through the moments of inspiration, hard work—and sometimes, intense frustration—that lead up to Intel ISEF. She’s with them on their trip to the podium (when they win), and then back home again, tracing how science fairs have changed their lives and those of the people around them, maybe even their entire community and beyond. Science Fair Season is an incredibly fun read, and a reminder that scientists can be heroes, too.

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