At a time when American teens lag far behind other countries in math and science, the documentary which may receive a 2011 Best Documentary Oscar nomination – is a coming-of-age documentary that tells the story of three remarkably different yet equally passionate 17-year-old scientists who vie to compete in the nation’s oldest, most prestigious science competition.
Win or lose, these ‘whiz kids’ raise questions about class, courage, personal sacrifice, success and failure, and in the process, learn as much about themselves as they do about science. Over the past eight years, countries like China and India vastly increased support for research and development, while U.S. funding remained largely stagnant. Not surprisingly, U.S. teens now rank 24th in the world in math and science. As global economies become increasingly competitive, America’s future rests on the shoulders of our next generation.
The main characters in “Whiz Kids” demonstrate that American students can meet that challenge. The Science Talent Search began in 1942 and is the oldest, most prestigious science competition in America. Formerly sponsored by Westinghouse, it is now known as the Intel Science Talent Search. Each year over two thousand students compete for prizes totaling more than $1.5 million. In the end, forty finalists travel to Washington D.C. to present their research to top scientists and vie for a $100,000 grand prize. While the competition itself provides a grueling and emotionally compelling narrative, the filmmakers agreed that the coming of age stories of its contenders would comprise the heart of the film. For a year and a half, they visited high schools around the country searching for teenagers who were engaged in sophisticated research. The team found students, who at 16 and 17, were already working in university and government labs, sometimes alongside Nobel Prize winning scientists. They also found students with fewer resources who had transformed basements and garages into makeshift labs. Several traits were consistent among these ‘whiz kids’ – an insatiable curiosity, a deeply felt determination to communicate their work to the public and a passion to make a difference in the world.