A Tradition of Success: Inside the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair

Each year, millions of high school students complete and present science fair at the projects worldwide, of which the top 1,700 from 77 countries coat the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) for over $3 million in awards and prizes. This year, five University School of Milwaukee Upper School students represented the Wildcats at Intel ISEF in Phoenix, with two students earning prestigious awards for their exemplary work.

Since 2003, 14 USM students have earned a total of 20 ISEF awards, representing a staggering amount of success for one school. However, the showing was not a surprise to Upper School Science Teachers Robert Heun and Robert Juranitch, who have helped build a strong foundation of success for Upper School scientists, beginning in 9th grade.

Each project begins as a passionate idea conceived by each student, followed by hours of research, trial and error, and consultation with mentors who are experts in their given scientific fields.

“In order to build any successful program, students need the opportunity to develop and build upon their success. It is important for our students to develop ownership of their projects from the very beginning,” Heun said.

“That ownership really represents well with judges during the competition stages, because they can sense that our students know and understand each aspect of their topics.”

Heun and Juranitch work to pair students with mentors but the onus is ultimately on students to facilitate and build those valuable relationships.

“We try to plant the seeds and set students up for success, but how those relationships grow, and where they go, is up to them,” Juranitch said.

Heun estimates that each participating student puts in between 200 and 400 hours of work on their science fair projects as an extracurricular activity, an enormous commitment that demonstrates the level of passion that each participating student displays for their work.

Arundhati Pillai ’17 qualified for Intel ISEF for the second time in 2016, following her passion for biomedical engineering to help develop a surgical tool using 3D printers to treat cerebral aneurysms. Inspired by her father’s work in mechanical engineering, Pillai’s work utilizes principles of both engineering fields and explores ways to use new technologies in the health sciences.

“The implementation of 3D printing and how it can impact the medical field is really interesting to me,” Pillai said. “Through my exploration and research, I was able to focus my project on creating a surgical tool capable of treating a health issue.”

After progressing through the Upper School Science Fair in February, and the Badger State Science and Engineering Fair in March, the very best projects qualify for Intel ISEF each May.

The week of Intel ISEF is a grueling one for participating scientists, who must present and defend their work before a group of scientists with Ph.D.s before they engage in a public project viewing. USM finalists were also interviewed for a documentary by USM alumna and former Intel ISEF award recipient Cristina Costantini ’07, which is in the early stages of production and slated for a late-2017 release.

Translating hours of research and scientific method can be a challenging proposition for students, who engage in countless prep interviews and mock presentations prior to the fairs.

“The key is to keep it as simple as possible and practice until the verbiage becomes second nature,” Anshul Bhatnagar ’17 said.

Bhatnagar, who was also a second-time Intel ISEF qualifier in 2016, practiced his presentation tirelessly with his brother and parents in preparation for ISEF, reasoning that if he could explain his project clearly enough for them to understand and support his work, he would be ready to present to and win over the Fair’s judges. He also noted that his preparation has helped him in other academic areas.

“I’ve developed so many other skills through my preparation for Intel ISEF,” Bhatnagar said. “It’s really been a great experience.”

2016 Intel ISEF Participants

Anshul Bhatnagar ’17 – “Development of a Computational Method for Rapid Identification of Organic Molecules for Efficient Solar Energy Conversion”
Daniel Glazer ’17 – “Galaxy Clusters, New Discoveries to Fill in the Gaps”
Arundhati Pillai ’17 – “Next Generation Surgical Tool Using Three- Dimensional (3D) Printing for Cerebral Aneurysm Treatment”
Nabeel Quryshi ’18 – “Chemotherapeutic Induced Cellular Death
(Apoptosis/Necrosis) Inhibition/Restoration of Microvascular Vasodilatory Function through Telomerase Modulation”
Candace Walther ’17 – “Isolation and Characterization of Bacteriophages Effective at Killing Enterococcus Faecalis”

If you are interested in becoming a USM Science Fair mentor or a judge for the 2017 USM Science Fair, contact Upper School science teacher Robert Juranitch at 414.540.3448 or rjuranitch@usmk12.org for additional information.

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