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Gifted students competing in science fair inspire hope for future

High school students compete in the largest science fair for nearly $9 million in scholarship money.
Posted at 10:09 PM, May 22, 2023

Laptops, Lanyards and posterboards — so many posterboards. The Regeneron International Science and Engineering Fairor ISEF is the largest high school STEM competition in the world. 

Maya Ajmera is the president and CEO of Society for Science and the executive publisher of its award-winning magazine, Science News. Ajmera told Scripps News, "We have over 1,600 finalists, half of them young women, who are coming from over 60 countries, regions and territories, as well as every state in the United States." 

Students compete for nearly $9 million in scholarships and maybe more importantly a spot on the Grand Awards Ceremony stage. 

"They are coming in with original scientific engineering projects that are really looking at areas of artificial intelligence. They're looking at areas of cancer treatment, they're looking at areas of climate change," Ajmera said. 

As you walk through the halls of the convention center students are explaining, testing and presenting their hard work to judges from all over the country. 

"These young people are doers. They're not reading a biology textbook, or an engineering textbook, they're actually looking at a problem for many of them, that affects them or their communities. And once they find that problem, then they can become problem solvers," Ajmera said. 

One of those problems, receiving attention from several students at ISEF, is school shootings. 

Ava Cotroneo created a bulletproof backpack insert after a school shooting in her county. 

Viera High School student Lavanya Natarajan talks about her science

Bright young minds work to solve big problems at science competition

The Regeneron Science Talent Search starts with 2,000 science projects from across the country, which are then narrowed down to 40.


"I've seen the emotional toll that it's taken in my community. My mom's a first grade teacher, and she does active shooter drills with her children all the time," Cotroneo said. 

Cotroneo tested her prototype with AR-15 rifles and worked with a local Navy base to get the materials she used. Cotroneo added, "Students come up and tell me their experience with gun violence. I've had multiple threats at my school. I feel like the best we can do is adapt with the times. So that's kind of what I'm trying to do right now." 

Maya Shah is from a suburb of Dallas — just a short drive from the Allen outlet mall shooting a few weeks ago. 

"The fact that this becomes something that's normalized, the fact that we have lockdown drills in schools, where the lights are turned off, and the teacher tells us what would happen if a gunman were to come in — that's a scary reality. It's almost dystopic," Shah added. 

Shah's project focused on determining the character traits and behaviors common in would-be school shooters. Shah says she wants to stop these kinds of shootings before they happen. 

Shah said, "It becomes something that people talk about, but nothing is done. And so the biggest thing about my solution is it's not costly. It's not hard to implement. All it needs is the time to try to persuade these people." 

While this is Shah's first time at the ISEF competition it's not nearly her first successful science project. 

Shah told Scripps News, "I had a project about COVID and masking. And I ended up actually getting that published in a peer reviewed medical journal." 

Society for Science held their first science fairs in the 1950s and since then has launched almost 400 science fairs in more than 60 countries. 

"This is a very kumbaya moment for us. These are future collaborators, business partners, and they're going to make lifelong friends. And that is very powerful for us. I don't know about you, but they give me a lot of hope for the future," Ajmera said.