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Today’s science champions, tomorrow’s Nobel scientists

Forget homemade volcanoes and models of the solar system. Today’s science fairs feature self-driving cars and computer-generated simulations of galaxies.

And the prizes, if you’re really good, award way more than extra credit. The most ambitious young inventors have the chance at scholarships and research funding for projects normally pursued by Ph.D scientists.

As these contests go, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair is like the Wimbledon of science fairs, an ultimate goal for any serious competitor. Every May, high-school students who have won district, regional and state competitions join teams from more than 80 countries. Many of the world’s top inventors and young minds attend to take home a grand prize, but also to have their work recognized and evaluated by scientific professionals. The top winners each year receive $75,000 and $50,000 scholarships.

The competition, which began as the National Science Fair in 1950, takes its name from its Intel Corporation sponsorship, which began in 1997.

“Students really gain from owning a problem,” says Michele Glidden, director for science education programs at the Society for Science and the Public, which organizes the event.

Jack Andraka won the Intel ISEF award in 2012 at age 15 for his research on early detection of pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer. His method uses color metric paper sensors to detect signs of these cancers in human blood and is “28 times faster, 28 times less expensive and over 100 times more sensitive than current tests,” according to the award announcement.

“I definitely had this teenage optimism that other people would call ignorance of the field, but it helped me to be unhindered in taking unconventional methods to pursue the project,” Andraka said.

Now a high school senior set to attend Stanford University next fall, Andraka has given TED Talks around the world, has an upcoming book release scheduled for March, a patent pending on his early detection test and is continuing to pursue his research at Georgetown University on weekends and after swim practice.

Canadian teen Ann Makosinski, who invented a hollow flashlight powered by heat generated from the human hand at age 15, gives a TED talk on her project. Photo by Flickr user TEDx RenfrewCollingwood

Canadian teen Ann Makosinski, who invented a hollow flashlight powered by heat generated from the human hand at age 15, gives a TED talk on her project. Photo by Flickr user TEDx RenfrewCollingwood

Canadian teen Ann Makosinski, who invented a hollow flashlight powered by heat generated from the human hand, has also achieved pseudo-celebrity status. She went on to win first prize in her age group at the 2013 Google Science Fair and won an award in the electrical and mechanical engineering category at this year’s Intel ISEF. She was named one of TIME Magazine’s “30 People Under 30 Changing the World” and made an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon.

If they’re really lucky, hardworking science students like Andraka and Makosinksi could get their work archived alongside that of Thomas Edison and Jonas Salk. The National Gallery for America’s Young Inventors, operated by the National Museum of Education and now celebrating its 20th year, selects a number of U.S. teenagers as inductees every year, with the final selection made by a national youth board of students from around the country.

“Our award is not about money, it’s about having a place in history,” says Nicholas Frankovits, executive director for the National Museum of Education. “We have so many names and great accomplishments coming in each year it’s unbelievable.”

With high profile companies like Intel and Google taking an interest in young inventors, there are more opportunities than ever for teenagers to pursue cutting-edge research and solve problems in new ways. Science fairs have always been testing grounds for curious young minds, and past ISEF winners have already become Nobel laureates. Who knows, the cure to cancer or the next light bulb could start with a 15-year-old’s science project.

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