Walk the rows of 1,800 exhibitions at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair at the Los Angeles Convention Center and you’ll see research titles like “Dendritic Crystallization of Salts,” “Evaluating Problem Solving Approaches Using Child Safety Locks,” and “A Better Solar Heater in the Form of a Triangular Pyramid.”
These aren't PhD papers. This research was done by high school students from around the world, most them prize-winning entries at their local science fairs.
This year's Intel fair is the biggest since 1950, officials said, when it was founded as the National Science Fair and decades before it was renamed for the computer chip maker.
They said this year's entries show there's a lot to be proud of - but also much to worry about - when it comes to science, math, and engineering education in public schools.
“A lot of these students are getting the science that they bring here through experiences outside of school,” Intel Foundation Executive Director Wendy Hawkins said.
Many science teachers, she said, teach science through cookie cutter experiments that do little to spark a kid’s curiosity and fascination with science and math. The students participating in this fair sought out ways to speed past classroom teaching.
“They’re working with faculty at universities, they’re working with researchers, and research institutions, they’re building labs under their beds,” Hawkins said.
Fair officials said improving science, math, and engineering learning in schools is a top priority and the fair – which hands out $5 million in awards Friday.
Charts, drawings, and descriptions are meticulously arranged on tri-fold cardboard panel making up Samantha Wathugala's entry. The title on top reads “Dependence of Silica Sol-gel Thin Film Material Properties on Fabrication Method.”
The Palos Verdes Peninsula High School senior researched ultra thin glass coatings that can detect viruses or other biological matter. Her knowledge about the topic went through the roof last year when she spent the summer working at USC.
“I found this professor, and emailed her, Skyped her, and finally got a position in her lab,” she said.
Her parents are both engineers and guided her. She made the trip from Palos Verdes to USC by commuting with her mother.
The convention center exhibit hall was a big field trip destination for Southern California high school and middle school students.
Victoria Llamas brought her seventh grade science class from South Gate Middle School to check it out. She wanted her students to see the young teen scientists. But the work was so advanced some of her students were discouraged.
“Many of them have stopped by and said, 'Ms Llamas, I’m listening to them and all I knew was the word ‘carbon’ I don’t know how I could ever do something like this. I’m overwhelmed,’” she said.
She said she's determined to show them they can.
CORRECTION: A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the school Wathugala attends. KPCC regrets the error.