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Book Review: Science Fair Season

December 26, 2011

Science Fair Season:Twelve Kids, a Robot Named Scorch, and What It Takes To Win
Judy Dutton
Hyperion 270 Pages

Science Fair Season is an enthusiastic collection of profiles of kids whose science fair projects take them all the way to competing at the national level. From Tyler, a kid training cockroaches to sniff out drugs, to a science teacher motivating kids in juvie; to a girl who researches her own leprosy; these kids are an intriguing bunch.

Dutton’s enthusiasm for these kids and their projects makes for a fast, fun read. She works with the kids to explain the science well, and quietly fleshes out the details of their home and school lives. I say quietly, because it would be easy to write these kids into over-sentimental detail or cliche plot arcs. There’s Garrett, living on a trailer on a Navajo reservation. His project uses an old car engine and soda cans painted black, to heat his family home! Because they need the heat. And the science fair accomplishment comes as a nice plus. There’s Eliza, who sees herself as a model and actress, not a scientist until her project on bees colony collapse really catches her attention and her enthusiasm. Friendships and mentorships form, including a robot building kid who thinks he has to make his own friends out of circuit boards, until he connects with a mentor, a retired engineer.

But Dutton saves her excited tones for their science, and lets the kids’ personalities be, while they’re working hard and pushing discoveries. I can’t imagine how smart these kids are… some of them are super-smart from the time they’re little. One kid, fascinated by electricity, could rewire an entire room before he hit puberty. Taylor’s interest in radioactive materials made his parents a little nervous. Philip is home schooled, because the schools near him can’t give him what he needs to stay engaged in subjects, especially science. But for the most part, they’re just teenagers. Curious, questioning teens, with supportive mentors, asking intelligent questions. Even, in some cases, asking the kinds of questions that get them patents on inventions. I’m a little in awe. Not necessarily of the imagination it takes to ask, but the drive and discipline they have, to figure out the steps to constructing and conducting experiments that become science fair projects.

This was  a great fun, fast read. Dad got it for Christmas from Mom yesterday and I might have snatched it right up, started it yesterday, and finished it this morning.

I regret nothing.

At its heart, this story of tight focus on a few competitors is a good sports narrative. And science is the sport where these teens choose to push themselves forward and excel.

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