Technology & Ideas

Teen Rocket Scientists Offer a Peek Into the Future

Think we’re running out of things to discover? Not a chance.

His robot will wash your windows.

Photographer: Chris Ayers/Society for Science and the Public

Solving global scientific and engineering challenges requires global collaboration -- and it’s never too early to start. That’s why research competitions that introduce the world’s smartest young people to one another are essential for our future.

Last week, almost 1,800 high school students from 81 countries convened in Pittsburgh for the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF). They're the best of the best -- to qualify, each had conducted independent research that won a local, regional or national fair.

The range of projects was extraordinary. One of the top winners, from Australia, built an autonomous robot that can wash windows in high-rises. Two other winners, both from the U.S., developed improved energy storage technologies -- low-cost supercapacitors and more robust batteries. Students from Kenya presented a new method for teaching mathematics to the deaf; others from around the world made advances in medicine, botany and quantum computing.

And the competition isn’t just about identifying the strongest projects.

The judging panels -- one of which I co-chaired 1  -- engage with all the students as scholars, welcoming them into the research community and encouraging them to keep pushing the frontiers. Universities, companies, government agencies and foundations meet with the students and present awards as well, highlighting potential educational and career paths.

Even more importantly, the students get to know each other. They’re deeply curious about each other’s ideas and interests, as well as their backgrounds. The students form bonds that last -- and those connections become the cores of their research networks.

Altogether, ISEF is a competition that fosters a culture of collaboration. Students make friends who go on to be their colleagues; at the same time, they acquire contacts that can help them continue and expand their scientific work. And the winners inspire everyone involved. 2

Indeed, we adults might even be able to take a cue or two from these students -- not just about biology or advanced mathematics, but also about partnership and cooperation. True excitement and curiosity drives everybody at ISEF; that catalyzes learning and cultural exchange.  That’s something we should all strive for and support – and, as I said, it’s never too early to start.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

  1. I’ve co-chaired the Mathematics Grand Awards judging at ISEF since 2013. Additionally, as of this year, I sit on the National Leadership Council of Society for Science & the Public, the nonprofit that runs ISEF.

  2. Some of them even achieve minor celebrity status, based on their Twitter followings.

To contact the author of this story:
Scott Duke Kominers at

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
James Greiff at

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