MARGARET WARNER: John Merrow, our special correspondent on education, has a final look in his series on high school science students competing in something called ISEF, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair.
JOHN MERROW: You can see the tension on the faces here. You can feel the crowd's anticipation. Their wait is almost over. These young scientists are about to find out if they are winners in the largest pre-collegiate science fair in the world, a six-day competition known as ISEF.
For most of these students, the journey to Louisville, Kentucky, where the 53rd annual ISEF competition is being held, began at least a year ago, when they decided on research projects, found adult mentors to assist them, did the research, wrote up their findings, and then won regional competitions.
We've been following students from two high schools: Plainview Old Bethpage High on Long Island, and Townsend Harris high in Queens, New York City. Sophia Bajwa and Angela Nguyen, two seniors at Townsend Harris, teamed up to study the biophysical properties of proteins. They won two regional competitions in February and March, earning a trip to Louisville. Mandeep Virdi, a junior at Plainview Old Bethpage, finished a close second in the Long Island finals, with a project focusing on minimizing the side effects of cancer-fighting drugs. But then her science teacher called: The winner in her category had become ill.
SPOKESMAN: Now, you're all set up and ready for inspection?
MANDEEP VIRDI, ISEF Finalist: Yes. I didn't realize it would be this big. There are so many projects around here. It's really amazing how many people are really here.
SPOKESPERSON: You're Sophia and Angela? Hi, I'm Mrs. Krieger from the Long Island Science and Engineering Fair. Hi.
SPOKESPERSON: How are you?
JOHN MERROW: Mandeep, Sophia, and Angela met for the first time in Louisville. They were accompanied by their teachers, Melanie Krieger and Susan Brewstein. Both teachers had advice for the young scientists.
MELANIE KRIEGER: Have a really great time, because these judges are like no other judges in the world. These are so exciting.
SUSAN BRUSTEIN: They need to go in knowing that the reward is not winning, and that they can't expect to win. And if they win, that's just fabulous. But it's not the only goal.
JOHN MERROW: Before the hard questions began, the students had two days to get to know each other.
SINGING: I've learned how to care...
JOHN MERROW: The six-day competition included entertainment and time for socializing.
SINGING: I'm crazy about my baby baby's crazy about me.
JOHN MERROW: Deeper bonds were being forged, and appreciation of differences and discovery of similarities.
SHRADDHA TELI, ISEF Finalist: I'm from India, and I've met a Pakistani. And we went, "hey, we're from the same blood." And it was like, "yeah." There's really a nice sense of unity among everyone.
JOHN MERROW: The competition itself took two days. Science Service, which runs ISEF, recruits over 1,000 scientists, professors, doctors, and other professionals to evaluate the students' research. First, the judges inspected the exhibits with no students present.
WILLIAM OLIVER, University of Western Kentucky: I've been around looking at some of the displays last night, some of the setups, and I'm just overwhelmed at the quality I've of them; they're college-level work.
JOHN MERROW: William Oliver is chair of the department of chemistry at Northern Kentucky University.
WILLIAM OLIVER: If I was just looking at the displays on their own, there's no way I could distinguish the best from the second best and third, et cetera. A lot will depend on the interviews.
JOHN MERROW: Also on hand was Leon Lederman, who won the Nobel Prize for his work in physics.
LEON LEDERMAN: Kids are born scientists. A scientist is someone who asks questions, and kids ask questions. I mean, answering the question is much easier than asking the right question. What you need is those embers of curiosity. You blow on them, get them hotter and hotter, until finally it erupts into a flame of, as you said, passionate interest in the world, and... you know, I'm interested in this personally, because one of those kids somewhere is going to find a cure for senility, and I'm in a hurry, you know. (Laughs)
SPOKESMAN: Take your time, take your time.
JOHN MERROW: At noon on the next day, students rush to their boards, ready for five hours of judging. Angela, Sophia, and Mandeep were judged seven times.
STUDENT: As they went on, it was kind of, okay, you kind of said to yourself, "don't worry, things will be all right."
STUDENT: It helps you understand your own research more, because you have to explain it to somebody else.
STUDENT: You're speaking freehand and you're explaining your project, and they are familiar with your project. They have judged it last night on their own.
STUDENT: So, for that purpose, we created this machine with it, and...
JOHN MERROW: These students have had opportunities in school that most students do not get. They've been encouraged to work the way scientists do: Dig deeply into subjects, follow their curiosity. More students need opportunities like that in the view of Nobel Prize winner Leon Lederman.
LEON LEDERMAN: If we don't fix our science and math educational system, the nation is really in deep trouble.
JOHN MERROW: Lederman pulls no punches when analyzing science education.
LEON LEDERMAN: Anybody who objectively looks at the state of science education in this country comes out with the same conclusion. We've been surviving on immigration, but that's not going to last, because country after country is beginning to get wise and try to keep their scientists from fleeing to greener pastures. We can't depend on them.
JOHN MERROW: To fix the system, Lederman says start early.
LEON LEDERMAN: Two years before kindergarten, and then continue that, because you want to make use of the fact that these kids are scientists. And cognition scientists tell us that kids are ready to learn science at a very early age.
JOHN MERROW: Finally, it was time to find out who would win.
SPOKESMAN: This is the World Series, this is the Super Bowl, the Olympics, the World Cup all into one, and you are here. So congratulations to each and every one of you. (Cheers and applause)
JOHN MERROW: In all, 900 awards were presented, including three $50,000 scholarships: To Alexander Middle, for a computer science project; Naveen Sinhoff for Physics; and Nina Vasa, who won the top award for her research in learning with pictures instead of words. Although Mandeep, Angela, and Sophia did not win any awards, that did not change their feeling about the experience.
SOFIA BAJWAt: It hurts, but there's only so much you can ask for. And I think just being here, I felt reluctant.
ANGELA NGUYEN: It's great competing with people from all over the world. We got to meet a lot of people and listen to their projects. And it was really interesting to see how they thought and put their work together.
MANDEEP VIRDI: At first, it's disappointing, but then you think, "oh, at least I was here," right? So I need to think that... anything that you do is kind of rewarding in its own sense.
JOHN MERROW: Mandeep, Angela, and Sophia are going home energized. They're now part of an elite scientific community. Undoubtedly the same thing could be said about every one of the young scientists here. It's a cliché to say that all of these young men and women are winner, but, in fact, they are.