The 15 Google Science Fair finalists

Several Scientific American staffers recently flew out to Mountain View, Calif. for the culmination of Google’s first annual science fair. SA was an event sponsor, and editor-in-chief Mariette DiChristina served as a judge and as the awards dinner host. We were impressed with all 15 finalists: they were bright, engaging, articulate – and, of course, they truly loved science. (For info on the three winners, click here.) We couldn’t help wondering: what first drew these impressive teens to math, engineering, medical research and the many other subjects in which they immersed themselves for this competition? And what lessons might parents and educators draw from these kids’ stories? Reporter Francie Diep interviewed 14 out of the 15 finalists to find out. What stands out from her reporting is that even the most casual early exposures to science –trips to a botanical garden or zoo, fun math problems tossed out during a car ride, a chance to punch tickets at a train station – can change the course of a young person's life. Here’s Francie’s report:

What does it take to make it as a finalist at the Google Science Fair, where winners earn hefty scholarships and internships at CERN, home to the Large Hadron Collider? First, let’s look at some basic statistics. It does help if at least one parent is a scientist. Of the 14 finalists I spoke with, only 5 had two non-scientists for parents; 5 had one scientist parent and 4 had two scientists for parents.

As for schools, 10 finalists went to general public schools; two attended specialized public schools that focused on math and science; and 5 attended general private schools. (I counted one finalist twice for spending time in two different kinds of schools).

Leaving stats aside, the top things finalists named as the foundation of their interest in science was having a family member who was interested in science and making trips to the local science museum. Seventeen-year-old Shree Bose, this year's grand prize winner, admired her older brother. "He was always a role model to me and he always loved science," she says. She won for a study on the interaction of a protein and a cancer drug on ovarian cancer cells.

Naomi Shah, a winner in the 15-to-16 age category, recalls visiting Portland’s Oregon Museum of Science and Industry every few weeks with her family when she was little. She liked the experience so much that she now volunteers there. "In the chemistry lab, they let me light my hand on fire," she recalls of her early visits. She also remembers the "Flubber Room." "My mom would get tired of the Flubber Room, but I just wanted to stay in there," she says. (Flubber is an easy-to-mix substance that acts as a liquid and as a solid. To make a similar substance called Oobleck at home, watch this video.) Her project investigated the effects of indoor air pollution on people with asthma.

Some finalists recalled their parents’ efforts to introduce math and science in a fun, unintimidating way. Vighnesh Shiv's parents (his dad is a computer scientist, and his mom studied journalism and literature) began teaching him to count and do basic arithmetic on his Magna Doodle toy before his second birthday. Later, they instated "pink spoon challenges"— "sets of interesting math problems, the rewards for which were trips to Baskin Robbins," Shiv, 17, explains. The problems included a sort of math crossword, where clues such as "10 * 10 * 10" yielded numerals that could be converted into letters that spelled a funny word or phrase. His mother also introduced word problems such as: "Three apples are needed to make one apple pie. What fraction of an apple pie can Mommy make with one apple?" “My mom would casually toss me math problems on the way to Tae Kwon Do class or while accompanying her on errands, and my dad would do the same on car rides to school,” he says. “They still chuckle about how once I solved their problems, I would come up with my own and toss them back.”

Volunteer opportunities can help build confidence and deepen knowledge, even at a very young age. Daniel Arnold got interested in trains when he started volunteering at a local tourist railroad when he was just five years old, at which tender age he helped punch tickets. Now 14, he volunteers as a fireman on a steam locomotive at the railroad, located in his hometown of San Diego, California. "I watch the fire, make sure we have enough steam, make sure we have enough water," he says. For the fair, he demonstrated a better train tracks switch. (His mom is a rheumatologist and his dad is an electrical engineer).

TV and movies can also inspire an interest in the sciences. Luke Taylor, who built a robot to respond to voice commands, finds inspiration in Star Wars, Iron Man and I, Robot. And Dora Chen, who built an audio-video recorder to help caretakers keep track of people with dementia, had "great science teachers and awesome parents" -- and Bill Nye. (Nye is best known for hosting "Bill Nye the Science Guy," a PBS show from the 1990s; he now hosts "Solving for X," a show about algebra, for Disney Educational Productions). "Bill! Bill! Bill! Bill!" Chen enthused over e-mail. Chen's dad is a CTO and her mom works as a statistics analyst.

So it seems that having fun—whether out at a botanical garden or at home, while watching TV—is the way to nurture an interest in science in kids. It may even lead to a career in science. Nearly all of the finalists I talked to want to major in science or engineering in college, and to research, program or build devices for a job.

PHOTO CREDIT: Andrew Federman