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Whiz Kids


poster You don’t have to be a science geek to get caught up in “Whiz Kids,” a documentary about high school students competing in the 2007 Intel Science Talent Search (STS), the nation’s most prestigious science competition. In fact, anyone who likes a good story is likely to be riveted by the three compelling tales that unfold during the film’s 80-minute run time.

For two years, the filmmakers followed high school students Ana Cisneros, Harmain Khan, and Kelydra Welcker as they competed to become one of 40 finalists in STS, which is administered by the nonprofit Society for Science & the Public, in Washington, D.C. The film comes to a crescendo during the competition’s weeklong finale in the nation’s capital, where the $100,000 grand prize winner is announced.

Inevitably, some students win and others lose, and you tag along for the emotional roller coaster. But it’s these students’ stories of self discovery that truly scores this movie a home run. Kudos to the film’s director, 1987 STS finalist Tom Shepard, for keeping this coming-of-age documentary balanced and real.

The filmmakers did a great job of choosing which students to profile. Many Intel finalists come from affluent backgrounds and the best high schools in the country. The film chose instead to follow three students from poor but supportive families. These students see winning the competition as their ticket to a better life, and they would do anything to make their parents proud.

Cisneros, whose immigrant parents are from Ecuador, attends Uniondale High School, in Long Island, N.Y., where the student population is predominantly Hispanic and African American and few students attend Ivy League schools. Pakistan-born Khan and his four siblings were raised on welfare by his single mother, who supplemented her income by collecting aluminum cans. And Welcker is from rural West Virginia, which has not had a finalist in the Intel competition for many years. “It would be great to get a West Virginia kid back there,” she says.

Despite their limited resources, these students create their own opportunities to conduct independent research. Cisneros contacts a world-renowned ecologist at Colorado State University after reading one of his papers and lands a summer internship with him to study how plants communicate with each other. Khan wants to work in a lab so badly that he travels four hours by bus every day to do his research project on dating fossilized crocodile teeth from India. And Welcker turns a trailer behind her home into an environmental science lab for her project on identifying and removing perfluorooctanoic acid (PFOA), a likely carcinogen, from drinking water. Earlier, she had discovered that PFOA from a DuPont Teflon plant was contaminating the local water supply.

Harvard University emeritus professor Dudley Herschbach calls the film “a wonderful production.” Herschbach, who serves as chair for the Board of Trustees of the Society for Science & the Public, says the film stays true to the heart of the competition. “What comes through very well,” Herschbach says, is that the real prize for the students “is in the experience of pursuing something they can take ownership of.”

“Whiz Kids” is available on DVD from whizkidsmovie.com. The film will be shown during the Environmental Film Festival in the Nation’s Capital (www.dcenvironmentalfilmfest.org) in March and will be broadcast nationally on PBS in 2010.