Long before Natalie Portman won an Academy Award for her portrayal of a deranged ballerina in “Black Swan,” she was recognized by an altogether different—though equally renowned—organization, the Society for Science & The Public (S.S.P.).
Portman was named a finalist in S.S.P.’s Intel Science Talent Search, an annual event that allows high school seniors from across the United States to present their original research findings to professional scientists. Published under her birth name, Natalie Hershlag, Portman’s research paper, “A Simple Method To Demonstrate the Enzymatic Production of Hydrogen from Sugar,” was honored in 1998, Fox News reports. Held each year, the Talent Search is one of many popular programs S.S.P. sponsors that aim to get young people interested in and excited about science and, more importantly, in learning, creating, and discovering.
Like Portman, many of the students who have been selected as finalists have gone on to achieve a great deal of notoriety in their chosen fields, earning Nobel Prizes and MacArthur Fellowships, among other awards and accolades. S.S.P. also collaborates with the technology giant Intel on the International Science and Engineering Fair (I.S.E.F.). This year, more than 1,700 high school students from the U.S. and around the world participated in the event, which granted more than $6 million in awards.
By overseeing such events every year, S.S.P. is doing its part to ensure that the U.S. remains competitive in an increasingly global economic landscape, explains Sarah Wood, a senior communications manager at S.S.P. With more and more businesses looking for candidates with backgrounds in science, engineering, technology, and math (S.T.E.M.), it is exceedingly important that young people develop these skills from a young age.
“The Society for Science and the Public’s mission statement is to inform, educate, and inspire the public about science,” she says. “There’s going to be a constant need for people with S.T.E.M. skills, as we become more globalized. Just think about how much things have changed in the past ten years and all of the technologies we use now that are based off S.T.E.M. We really need to develop those skills in students and the excitement around it, as well.”
Students who compete in the I.S.E.F. present their original research findings to renowned scientists, who evaluate the advanced scientific experiments they’ve conducted. For example, this year’s top winner, Nathan Han, was recognized for his research into tumor cells. His report on his findings, “Characteristics of Deleterious Mutations in Tumor Suppressor Genes,” won the Gordon E. Moore Award, which comes with $75,000 in prize money.
While earning recognition for a project to which you’ve devoted an inordinate amount of time can make the experience worthwhile, S.S.P. is equally interested in encouraging young people whose research hasn’t generated the results they might have anticipated.
“That’s one of the things we think events like Intel I.S.E.F. are particularly good for,” Wood says. “It is rewarding hands-on research that doesn’t really have a defined answer so it really creates opportunities for creative thinking and problem solving that students might not have in that traditional, small classroom experience. It’s an opportunity for them to do things that involve trial and error and learn that failure isn’t a bad thing. In science, a lot of times finding out what doesn’t work is just as important as finding out what does work.”
Aside from the annual science competitions it oversees, S.S.P. produces science-based publications, Wood says, and it’s also in the process of developing outreach programs. Ultimately, the organization is betting that by getting young people excited about science, it can help create a new generation of leaders, business people, and, yes, scientists.
“We know that not everyone who competes in our competitions or in science fairs in general is going to go on to have a career in S.T.E.M.—and that’s not our expectation,” Wood stresses. “But the things that they learn can be applied to anything they want to go do in their lives. It’s critical thinking skills, and experimentation, and the scientific method.”