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Intel ISEF 2012

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ISEF_logo-234x300.jpg1,549 of the world’s most talented young scientists and engineers just spent the best week of their lives (so far!) at the Intel International Science & Engineering Fair.  Many of them are going home with one of hundreds of awards and scholarships – more than $3.5 million given away this week, with $1.5 million from Intel alone. The top award of $75,000, named after Intel’s own beloved co-founder, Gordon E. Moore, was presented to 15-year old Jack Thomas Andraka from Crownsville, Maryland for his project developing a novel paper sensor for the detection of pancreatic cancer. The Intel Young Scientist Awards of $50,000 went to Nicholas Benjamin Schiefer from Pickering, Ontario, Canada for research in computer science, and to Ari Misha Dyckovsky from Leesburg, Virginia for his work in photon entanglement. Wonderful students doing amazing work who more than deserve the attention and the recognition. But the money and the competition and the awards represent only a small fraction of what these students take away with them.

isef2012award-300x168.pngMany of these students have been the smartest kid they know for most of their lives, so this is the first time they have ever been in a room filled with hundreds of kids as smart as or (gasp!) smarter than they are. It is the first time they have been surrounded by other people just as excited about science and engineering as they are. It may be the first time they have felt ‘average’ in their entire lives. And for most of them, that feels kinda good. 

One thing I have learned after years of living and working with scientists is that for them the world is truly flat, as Tom Friedman tells us. There are no country boundaries – science connects the world. A physicist in one country knows a network of physicists all around the world. And for these 1500 students, this week has formed the kernel of that network. From this single hub, they will return to their homes and connect all of the young scientists they already know, as well as those they will meet in coming years, at their universities and in their careers. This is truly a transformative experience. 

And these young scientists are not simply thinking in academic abstracts. More than 25% of these finalists already have patents or patents pending on their work. Monday morning we hosted a panel of experts in entrepreneurship here: a venture capitalist, the head of Intel’s patent law group, the chair of UC Berkeley’s entrepreneurship program, our own Intel Futurist, and Ben Gulak, a former Intel ISEF participant and now young entrepreneur. More than 150 of the Intel ISEF Finalists attended the session and peppered the panelists with so many questions that we shifted to a ‘speed mentoring’ format to give as many of them as possible a chance to interact directly with these experts. The energy in the room was electric.

As I find each year, I am reassured by what I see here: students from around the world, excited and eager to work together, not simply learning about science, but being scientists. It is our task, we adults, to offer this same opportunity to more students, indeed to all students. To have the chance to roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty doing research into a subject which they choose themselves, and which has genuine importance – and therefore interest - to them. That is what it takes to engage them as scientists and engineers for the rest of their lives. For those who choose other paths, it will at least give them an understanding of the importance and value of science which will inform their decisions as citizens and consumers, their choices about their health and energy consumption, about the challenges that face the human race all around the world. We need to change the way we teach science to ensure this kind of understanding and engagement for all students. We owe it to them, and we owe it to ourselves.