Dade & Broward Students Take Part In Olympics Of Science

By Ari Odzer
|  Tuesday, May 20, 2014  |  Updated 5:15 AM EDT
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Go anywhere in the world in scientific circles and mention "ISEF", and immediately, the researchers, teachers, and students will know what you're talking about: The Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.

It is sometimes called the Olympics of science. Anyone who walked into the Los Angeles Convention Center last week would see why. It's an overwhelming maze of scientific research projects, all done by high school students.

"We want kids all over the world to have the chance, not to learn about science, not to memorize facts about science, but to be scientists, try that on for size, see how that fits," said Wendy Hawkins of the Intel Foundation, which sponsors the fair.

This year, seven Miami-Dade high school students and an equal number from Broward County made it to ISEF. That means they all had to win at the local and state levels to compete with the best from all over the world. This year, 1,800 students from 70 nations showed off their research projects.

What's the best thing about spending a week in Los Angeles, discussing science with peers, judges, astronauts, and Nobel Prize winners?

“Definitely meeting new people, it's life-changing,” said Chandler Precht, a student at Westminster Christian School in Miami who did her research on the effects of pollution on coral reefs.

"We got to listen to a whole panel of six Nobel laureates talk about their research and answer questions from the audience and that was really exciting as well," said Nicole Odzer of Pine Crest School in Fort Lauderdale. She studied mutations in Everglades shrimp populations.

The ISEF experience is designed to motivate and inspire kids to continue their scientific pursuits and have fun doing it. The Universal Studios Hollywood theme park was rserved one night just for them to blow off steam. They compete for prize money and scholarship dollars, but just being there at ISEF is already a victory.

"What we really see as the most valuable opportunity is for these kids to meet each other, other scientists from around the world, the chance to talk and argue with real working scientists about the work that they've done," said Hawkins. "They're taken seriously as scientists and they see themselves as scientists, that's life-changing."

Perhaps the biggest eye-opener is rubbing shoulders with, trading pins with, and exchanging ideas with teenagers from every corner of the earth.

"I turned around and I was, like, where are you from? And they were from China, it was so cool," said Swati Narasimhan, a student at Killian High School in Kendall.

“You really feel like the world is bigger than you think it is and you have more things to do. It's not just your small community. You just feel like a part of something much bigger. It's very inspirational," said Yenny Dieguez of Miami Lakes Educational Center. "Definitely not in Hialeah anymore!"

Every discipline of science is represented at ISEF, and it seems like every country you've ever heard of is represented as well. Some of the foreign kids wear their nations' native costumes, which adds a huge dash of cultural flair to a scientific event.

“Just talking to kids who love science as much as you do is really inspirational and it makes you want to pursue research as a career," said Brigitte Blanco of Pine Crest School.

From astrophysics to zoology, the kids absorbed evertyhing and seemed astounded by what they found at the ISEF.

“The amount of curiosity and interest in finding new ways of looking at things and solutions for a lot of problems," points out Vivek Miglani of Marjorie Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland as an example.

Brilliance all around the cavernous exhibition hall. I watched a girl from Indiana and a boy from Kurdistan take a selfie together, dissolving borders and boundaries. ISEF is about social science, too.

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