The annual Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), the world's largest, most prestigious science fair competition, featuring original research from more than 1,500 high school students from 65 countries, is underway.
This year, the competition is being held in Los Angeles; winners in many science, math, and engineering categories will be announced Friday afternoon. Students are competing for more than $4 million in scholarships and prizes.
In some ways, ISEF is like any science fair at a local high school: Competitors design a three-sided poster board explaining their research and are judged based on a combination of their presentation skills and the quality of their research. But instead of visual aids like tabletop volcanoes and stained socks, you're more likely to see a robotic hand or a model of an earthquake-resistant house.
"High school students are capable of much more than they are often asked to do," says Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the Intel Foundation. "They are capable of doing real science, of being scientists. The work that many of these students have done would be on the level of a Ph.D. thesis."
[Marian Bechtel has developed a device that would help humanitarians detect land mines.]
Hawkins says about 20 percent of competitors get patents for their projects. Although the United States is going through a STEM education crisis, more than half of the competitors are from America—and many are focusing on hot-button issues like global warming, renewable energy, and energy efficiency. Students in other countries are focusing on solving problems their countries face.
"It's always wonderful to see that the students from emerging market countries are doing work that is very relevant to their problems at home," she says. "They're looking at issues like species loss in rainforests near their homes, or agricultural problems."
Just last year, ISEF was one of the only major science fairs in the world, but a new competition from Google doesn't have the hardware giant worried. "We're good friends with Google; we've helped them think through some of their problems," Hawkins says. "We see [the Google fair] as a good opportunity for students who have no access to a direct face-to-face fair."
[Learn how a teacher in Iowa implemented the Google Science Fair.]
[A team of high schoolers from Indonesia show off their earthquake-resistant bamboo house.]
This in-person interaction is imperative to the development of a good scientist, she says. Students get a chance to meet other students and professional scientists, which can often lead to additional projects down the line.
"The judging process itself allows them to speak to real scientists, to get a direct model of how scientists really work. They challenge each other about the rigor of their science," Hawkins says. "They have to defend their projects. That's an essential part of the scientific process."