What happens when you put 1,700 of the world’s smartest teens together and ask them to show their scientific stuff?

You may get more than you bargained for.

“Science Fair,” a new documentary, follows teenagers through the highs and lows of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest pre-college science competition.

The fair, at which young people compete for millions of dollars in prizes, is a hotbed of scientific research. It’s also a hothouse of competition and teenage angst, as the documentary shows.

The film follows nine teenagers seeking to change their lives through science. Among them: Kashfia, a young Muslim who feels out of place in her large South Dakota high school and dreams of escaping small-town life through science. Robbie, a West Virginia math whiz with terrible grades, who wants to meet other kids who share his niche interests. And Anjali from Louisville, who contends with helicopter parents as she navigates the weird world of competitive science.


“Science Fair” follows teenagers through the highs and lows of the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, the world’s largest pre-college science competition. (National Geographic Documentary Films)

The ups and downs of all nine portray the diversity of competitors whose robots, laboratory techniques and even aircraft may earn them awards.

Even when they’re bickering or facing setbacks, the students’ intensity shines a light on the importance of science. Their personal journeys are just as maddening, exhilarating and compelling as the scientific questions they face. And the fact that kids of all colors, religious backgrounds, geographic locations and levels of academic achievement are doing it might just make you question your stereotypes about scientists.

The film, a presentation of National Geographic Documentaries, was co-directed by Cristina Costantini and Darren Foster, investigative journalists with a soft spot for science. In January, it generated buzz by winning the “festival favorite” award at the Sundance Film Festival.

A list of screenings can be found on the National Geographic website.