2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Issue Date: 
November 3, 2014

Stepping into the David L. Lawrence Convention Center that May morning in 2012 nearly took Russell Clark’s breath away. Packed into the enormous space were more than 1,200 science projects carefully prepared by 1,500 high-school students from nearly 70 different countries—all of them finalists in the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF).

“In one glance, I took in some of the best and brightest of [the world’s] future scientists and engineers,” said Clark, a senior lecturer of physics and astronomy at Pitt and one of ISEF’s 2012 volunteer judges. “It was a bit overwhelming—in a good way.”

Intel ISEF, an annual program of Society for Science and the Public sponsored by Intel Corporation, is the world’s largest pre-college science competition. Pittsburgh is set to host it again May 10-15, 2015—with the planning and judging help of numerous Pitt faculty and staff.

The 2015 event will bring together nearly 1,700 high school students in grades 9 through twelve, whose science projects were finalists in one of more than 450 regional affiliated science fairs throughout the world. Around 600 individual and team awards are presented at the five-day event, with the top winner awarded $75,000.

Science projects presented at ISEF bear little resemblance to the baking-soda volcanoes that may come to mind when thinking of traditional science fairs. The top award winners at this year’s ISEF, held in Los Angeles, included Nathan Han of Boston, who developed a machine learning software tool to study mutations of a gene linked to breast cancer, and Shannon Lee of Singapore, who developed a new kind of electrocatalyst. In Pittsburgh in 2012, Jack Andraka, a 15-year-old from Maryland, was named ISEF’s top winner for developing a novel paper-based method to detect pancreatic cancer.

“The students’ unbounded enthusiasm and willingness to tackle hard problems with new approaches reminds me of why I love doing engineering and why I love to teach it,” said Steven Levitan, the John A. Jurenko Professor of Computer Engineering in the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering. Levitan, like Clark, was one of 167 Pitt faculty members who volunteered to judge in 2012, and coordinators hope to maintain this broad University involvement for the 2015 fair. About 1,000 judges from 17 scientific disciplines are needed. Each judge must have a degree and at least six years of professional experience or a doctoral degree.

According to Chuck Vukotich Jr., ISEF is a “Pitt family affair in many ways. We have a network here of people who really put a lot of work into this.”

Vukotich, a senior project manager of Pitt’s School of Medicine’s SMART project, is part of the University’s ISEF coordinating team that also includes G. Reynolds Clark, vice chancellor, external relations and chief of staff to Chancellor Patrick Gallagher; Ken Service, vice chancellor for communications; and Richard Howe, associate dean of administration and planning in Pitt’s Kenneth P. Dietrich School of Arts and Sciences.

Working alongside Carnegie Mellon University, VisitPITTSBURGH, and the Carnegie Science Center, Pitt—encouraged by Chancellor Emeritus Mark A. Nordenberg—was instrumental to bringing ISEF to Pittsburgh in 2012. The fair will return yet again in 2018.

ISEF 2015 participants and attendees will not only witness the work of many bright, young minds, but will also have a chance to view panels, symposia, and other professional talks, including a panel of Nobel laureates who will share their steps to success.

“This is a great chance for our faculty and staff to mix and mingle with some of the greatest minds from around the nation and around the world,” added Vukotich.

For some like Russell Clark, judging at ISEF has become “a little addicting.” After volunteering in 2012, he attended the 2014 fair and has plans for 2016 ISEF in Phoenix.

“The enthusiasm of the students and the quality of their projects is really reward enough, but for me it is more than just that. Science often transcends borders and nowhere is that more clear than the ISEF,” he said.

Those interested in volunteering as judges may email judging@societyforscience.org or visit student.societyforscience.org/grand-award-judges for more information. Click on the “apply” tab to register.

Coordinators are also looking for interpreters and general volunteers to help execute the event; those interested may contact isefvolunteer@societyforscience.org.