Ana Cisneros, Harmain Khan, and Kelydra Welcker are the titular subjects of local filmmaker Tom Shepard’s documentary, “Whiz Kids.” This upcoming film is a portrait of teens learning about science. It’s also an unusual coming of age story set against the competitive Intel Science Talent Search. Out of 3,000 nationwide applicants, only 40 become finalists.
Beyond Chron (BC): Mass media attempts to explain science to laypeople go either for edutainment, or burying the viewer under a blizzard of facts. How do you convey the beauty and challenge of scientific discovery without losing your lay viewer?
Tom Shepard (TS): As our editor Jane (C. Wagner) would say: the threshold of most general viewers for science - even very intelligent viewers - is VERY low. Many people get flooded quickly, and believe that they just can't grasp scientific concepts. It forced us to distill the science in a way that was accessible and give it to the audience in gentle doses. Thanks largely to Co Director Tina DiFeliciantonio, we created some graphic animation to convey the science in a fun and accessible way that was also in tandem with the teenagers who were doing it.
BC: What appealed to you about Ana's, Kelydra's, and Harmain's stories that made you decide to make them the focus of your film?
TS: They didn't have privileged upbringings. Ecuadorian botanist Ana attended a majority minority high school in New York - half Latinos and half African Americans - in which she and her classmates really challenged the notion of who can be a scientist in America. There are sobering statistics about girls of color in science. We were impressed with Ana's fortitude, and especially her ability to hold the weight of her parents' sacrifice while finding her own voice as a young scientist.
After moving to the U.S. from Pakistan, Harmain's father abandoned the family. His mother raised Harmain and his four siblings on welfare checks and aluminum cans. The ferocity of his need to win, and to prove himself to his peers pushed Harmain to follow through with three years of research and make an original discovery in paleontology. Our third subject, Kelydra, at the age of 16, became an environmental watchdog in Parkersburg, West Virginia, where the DuPont Chemical company has been releasing a toxic chemical in the Ohio River for decades. Kelydra invented a simple table top device that allows people to measure and remove C8 from drinking water. Her work put her in an uncomfortable spotlight (her father's pension is drawn from DuPont).
We chose these three young people because they, as adolescents, were defining themselves primarily through science. The stakes for each of them to overcome big obstacles allowed us as filmmakers to invest the audience in their lives and the ways that they use their science to find a voice.
BC: How much of an edge do kids from better backgrounds have over the kids featured in WHIZ KIDS in succeeding in elite science competitions?
TS: Before we started filming, we spent nearly six months researching schools around the country looking for teenagers who were deeply engaged in science research. We visited a number of science magnet schools, a preponderance of them on the East Coast, that enable students at early ages to cultivate mentorships with scientists in the field, often at elite institutions like the National Institutes of Health (NIH). These high schools definitely give their students opportunities and advantages that many others don't have. (e.g. Ward Melville High in Long Island has classes dedicated to teaching students how to develop a research project sophisticated enough for publication in a professional journal.) And they tend to win the Intel Science Talent search and other elite competitions disproportionately.
Given how science rich we are in the Bay Area, I would like to see more of our universities and more of our high tech companies developing partnerships with high school programs in which students, as young as 14 and 15, can begin to intern in the summers, become more technically literate, and begin to explore research on their own. Even if they don't end up pursuing advanced science degrees in college or graduate school, these early experiences will inculcate skills that will make our citizenry stronger. Too many of these opportunities are reserved for too few students.
BC: What percentage of the Science Talent Search finalists eventually go on to scientific or science-related careers?
TS: Over 80 percent go on to get science degrees, maybe even a majority advanced degrees. I certainly took a right turn. At the same time, I find documentary filmmaking to be very analogous to science research: we collect tons of data (in the forms of hundreds of hours of footage), find the story and distill it down.
BC: You open WHIZ KIDS with some dismal statistics regarding American youths' achievements in math and science. Could American society's failure to encourage curiosity and a willingness to question existing knowledge be reflected in those dismal statistics? Or do you see another cause for those rankings?
TS: That's a very good question for which I don't have a good answer. My own opinion is that many school systems teach too closely to "standards." Everything that I know and feel about scientific orientation tells me that is it is something very intrinsic ... young kids are natural scientists. Their need to explore, ask questions, test those questions again and again, are part and parcel of the scientific method. I'm afraid sometimes this very magical and essential quality gets squashed by the need to conform in school, to measure up, and to assimilate facts and figures. Memorizing facts and figures are important. But not at the expense of cultivating analytical skills.
(“Whiz Kids”’ world premiere takes place on June 16, 2009 at the Herbst Theatre (401 Van Ness, SF). The screening benefits the Exploratorium and the Whiz Kids Outreach And Education Fund. Advance tickets are available at www.cityboxoffice.com or by calling 415-392-4400.)