Jericho High School student Kendra Zhang won a top prize last year at the world’s most prestigious student science competition, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. For her project on a new way of helping diabetics monitor their glucose levels, Zhang received the best-in-category award and $5,000. You can see the joy in the young winner’s face in the documentary “Science Fair,” which opens on Long Island Sept. 21.
Zhang, 18, was one of nine students to head to the Intel-sponsored fair, commonly known as ISEF, with their science teacher Serena McCalla. “For me, the happiest part of winning the award was watching the movie and Dr. McCalla’s face in it,” says Zhang, of Jericho, who now attends Columbia University. “She jumped out of her seat, screaming. I think I was happier seeing her so happy, because she worked so hard for us.”
“Science Fair,” codirected by Cristina Costantini and Long Island native Darren Foster, follows students from around the world — a German aeronautics wiz, two Brazilian disease researchers, a Muslim girl living in small-town South Dakota – as they compete at what’s often called the Olympics of science. After premiering at Sundance in January, “Science Fair” won the first-ever Festival Favorite Award, voted on by audiences. National Geographic Documentary Films acquired the title in April and is gearing up to release it in more than 30 cities nationwide. Front and center in this much buzzed-about movie are McCalla and her Jericho students.
“I just figured it would go on to Netflix or something and be watched by some kids who like science,” McCalla says today. “I never even expected it to go into theaters.”
The directors of “Science Fair,” who both have science backgrounds (Costantini is a former ISEF competitor; Foster, an Island Park native, was a biology major in college), say that Jericho High School was at the top of their list when they began scouting for students to follow in 2016. “If you look at the list of winners over the last few years,” says Costantini, “it was just Jericho, Jericho, Jericho — Syosset — Jericho, Jericho.” And so we thought, ‘Let’s go see this team.’”
What the filmmakers didn’t expect was that McCalla would become a larger part of the movie. “The camera just gravitated toward her,” says Foster. “It was really not in our plans to cover teachers. It was supposed to be all students. But once we started spending time with her, we knew we just had to make her a character.”
McCalla, the daughter of Jamaican immigrants — she was born in Jamaica, Queens — comes across in the film as a high-energy but no-nonsense educator. She once dreamed of being a physician herself, she says, and majored in biological science at SUNY Binghamton. After a post-college change of heart, she took a job teaching science at H. Frank Carey High School in Franklin Square, a tentative first step toward what would become her new career. In 2008 she moved to Jericho High School and began sending students to ISEF on a regular basis. In the meantime, she says, she earned a doctorate in science education from Australia’s Curtin University through a part-remote, part-locally based program.
To hear McCalla describe it, her teaching style falls somewhere between cool older sister and stern parent. She says she breaks in new students by letting them tell her what they think they know, then tripping them up with difficult questions. The truly passionate kids, she says, “are the ones that say, ‘OK, I’m going to show her I can figure this out.’ ” As class projects begin to take shape, McCalla works late nights and sometimes pulls all-nighters with her students in the laboratory. And if she ever feels they aren’t performing up to snuff, they’ll hear about it.
“I expect you to do your job,” McCalla says. “There’s no bonus salary for me. My day should end at 3:30 with all the other teachers. So if I’m here until midnight and you’re not doing the work — oh, I’m gonna go off. And I do.”
Despite the occasional browbeating, McCalla seems to have earned the affection and gratitude of her students. “She was a tremendous help,” says Justin Kim, an ISEF competitor in the microbiology category who appears in the film. Kim, 19, credits McCalla with coaching him through his presentation and keeping his cool while being grilled by various scientists and professors at ISEF. “She really advised each one of us in our class, and really tailored her expertise,” says Kim, who is now in a a medical program at Brown University.
McCalla saw “Science Fair” for the first time at Sundance, where she joined the filmmakers and some of her students on stage for a standing ovation. “That was the first experience I’d ever had of someone seeing my work outside of Jericho and really appreciating it,” she said. “I don’t expect a standing ovation for it. This is just my life.”