Intel ISEF 2013: Young scientists and the wonder of discovery

Raji Ganesan at Intel ISEF 2013
Raji Ganesan sporting CSI’s official lab coat at Intel ISEF 2013

Intel’s International Science & Engineering Fair (ISEF) was held in our very own Phoenix Convention Center this year! ISEF is an annual event that brings the best and brightest young people from all over the world together under one roof. From the outside, I imagine this sounds like nothing short of a celebration of innovation and global collaboration to make this world a better place. From the inside, I can assure you that’s exactly what it was.

There are few experiences more humbling (even shaming) than being in the same building as genius fifteen-year-olds who are accomplishing more than my angst-ridden, video-game-playing fifteen-year-old self could have even dreamed of accomplishing. After suffering through the initial inferiority complex, however, it was my true joy and pleasure to actually get to interact with many of the participants as they wandered by our exhibit, co-sponsored by the Center for Science and the Imagination and ASU’s Digital Culture program. I met teams and individuals from everywhere: China, Costa Rica, Egypt, the UK, Brazil and even Colorado (unbelievable, I know).

I was able to lure them in with the undeniably cool CSI lab coat, and then venus-fly-trap them with the question, “By the way, if you don’t mind me asking, what’s your project about?” The young people I spoke to were truly passionate about the problems they chose to tackle with their creativity and expertise.

I secretly expected all of them to have highly esoteric projects, requiring the equipment and technical skill of a small corporation, but I was also pleasantly surprised by the number of projects that sounded like good old fashioned science fair.

For instance, I met a girl from the UK (with a delightful accent, naturally) who explained that her project was altering the model of the traditional crutch/walking stick so that it worked more effectively on soft surfaces.  A boy I met from Colorado was brimming with enthusiasm when he shared his project with me. He simply messed around with some straw and local fungi species he found in his backyard to develop a system to remove toxic pesticides from run-off in his community. My favorite part of his explanation? When his initial solution didn’t work, he didn’t panic. Within weeks he had reached an entirely different but equally exciting conclusion.

These conversations reminded me of the beauty and wonder of scientific experimentation – the simple motivations that get us involved with science to begin with. It was a reminder that there isn’t a “type” of person who gets involved with science. There isn’t some universal recipe that starts with two scientist parents and ends with early admission to MIT. Science isn’t an answer, but rather a question, and these kids (and the thousands that didn’t make it to the finalist level) are out there seeking the answers. They are artists, humanitarians, environmentalists and designers. But most importantly, they are students – young scholars with an unquenchable thirst for discovery, and an insatiable appetite for change. And that part IS universal.

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