Tech-Powered Education

How Parents Inspire Kids through Intel ISEF

It’s not only the world’s ultimate science fair; it’s a catalyst for growing young scientists.

Equipped with a video camera, a reporter’s notebook and a pen, 12-year-old Nicholas Linik makes his way through the grid of Pittsburgh’s convention center floor. Row upon row is filled with research projects from more than 1,700 young scientists participating in the world’s largest pre-college science competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

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Linik sees compelling inventions everywhere: a sleek four-prop helicopter with a novel propeller design, a car that “flies” with the aid of electromagnetism, a brain-controlled robot on its way to becoming an exoskeleton for the disabled. He edges around the crowd to interview the creators behind the work.

He asks about their motivation and methodology; studies their diagrams, simulations and prototypes; and records it all on video, while taking notes on his pad of paper.

“I plan to post these interviews online,” Linik tells the student scientists, referring to a budding YouTube channel he created earlier this year. The channel is devoted to covering the latest in science and technology.

“I’m going to share your story with the world.”

He is assimilating all this information in the hopes that, one day, he may be able to return to Intel ISEF as an official participant. He has to be in ninth grade to qualify, but the goal has been set, the fuse lit.

Already, he’s thinking about problems he might be able to solve through science, and he’s determined to find a feeder fair — part of Intel’s worldwide network — in which he can compete.

Intel ISEF is valuable not only for ushering in the next generation of teen scientists, but also for inspiring younger kids like Linik to get jazzed about STEM education while they are still in the earlier grades.

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“It inspires younger students,” said Andrew Bramante, a science research teacher at Greenwich High School who had five students qualify and win awards at Intel ISEF 2015.

“They see what kids just a few years older can do. And they start to realize: I can do that. And so they talk to the kids about where they got started and where the idea came from, and it just starts to evolve.”

This year, more than 3,000 local school children and their teachers participated in Intel ISEF Public Day, where they had the opportunity to meet Intel ISEF finalists from around the world. It was a chance for the public to learn about the contestant’s independent research in 20 STEM fields, ranging from animal sciences and biochemistry to robotics and systems software.

A hands-on environmental science program called “When Invasives Attack!” invited visitors to collect data to determine if a lake had been contaminated by an aquatic invasive species. The budding scientists then analyzed the data to make decisions regarding how to balance environmental and economic impact.

Sherri Grosso, a teacher who brought 40 middle school students from Pittsburgh’s Country Day School this year, says the experience is invaluable.

“It shows them what real science looks like — what amazing things can be done,” she said. “It broadens their horizons.”

Visiting students could attend a handful of symposia on topics, such as saving the chimps through digital education, integrating 3D printing into education and programming with Arduino.

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Jonathan George, 12, of Sacramento, California, took part in the latter, creating an Arduino-based rainbow light.

“It was really fun,” he said. “So is everything here. Just looking at all the projects and all these really cool ideas — it’s like, I want to do that!”

George is here in Pittsburgh with his dad, Varghese George, an Intel engineer, as well as his mom and two brothers, including Nathaniel, who is a finalist with a biochemistry project focused on improving the sensitivity of Western blotting — a procedure used to identify specific amino-acid sequences in proteins – with smaller well engineering.

“I brought the whole family,” George said, “because I think it’s a great place for the younger kids to see what the older kids are doing and get inspired by it.”

Jonathan, who recently garnered a fourth-place award in a local middle-school science fair, now has a new goal: one day participating in Intel ISEF.

And even eight-year-old Simon, the youngest of the clan, has a new enthusiasm for science after attending Public Day.

“It makes me want to do stuff, like maybe chemistry,” he says. “I like to explode things!”

Erik Bollt, a mathematics professor from Potsdam, New York, had never heard of Intel ISEF when his oldest son, Scott, got involved in the science fair circuit in middle school.

When Scott qualified for the competition in 2013 and 2014 with aeronautical engineering projects and Bollt accompanied him to Phoenix and Los Angeles, however, he knew he’d stumbled across educational gold.

“It’s inspiring for kids to see what other kids can do,” Bollt says, “and to realize that maybe they can do it, too.”

This year, Scott qualified for the third year in a row with his development of a simple, inexpensive airplane wing gust suppression system. His younger brother Adam is heading to a Broadcom MASTERS — the middle school version of Intel ISEF — with a statistics project on baseball.

But now he has a new goal: making it to Intel ISEF.

“I want to do at least as good as my brother,” Adam Bollt says, pondering how he might employ his two favorite scientific disciplines — astrophysics and statistics — to solve a problem.

That would be just fine with his dad, who notes that the learning at Intel ISEF is much broader than science alone.

“It’s a lot more than an academic event,” says Erik Bollt. “It’s an international development event.”

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In fact, this year’s 1,702 finalists are from 78 countries, regions and territories around the globe, and many of them are dressed in cultural attire that sets them apart.

Yet, they’ve all come together to share a common interest. And the adults politely cheer them and their peers on.

As Bramante puts it, “Intel ISEF is more than sitting in a booth and sharing an idea with a judge. It’s as much about making friendships and developing networks. Students take the friendships they make here and carry them through their careers and lives.”

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