Laura Nix discusses her documentary Inventing Tomorrow, which follows a diverse group of students at a science fair, all of whom are working on projects to benefit the place where they live.
“The image of STEM that’s put out there is white men in lab coats. If you’re a woman or a person of colour, you don’t know that you can do that,” explained Laura Nix, the director of Inventing Tomorrow, which had its Canadian Premiere at HotDocs last week. Her film aims to change that perception. Inventing Tomorrow follows four groups of high school finalists at the Intel Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) from around the world. Half of her subjects are young women. None are white. They’re a far cry from the stereotypical science nerd, an antisocial freak with thick glasses and headgear. Most of the time, they look like regular kids who live regular lives.
Nix didn’t want to follow just any teenagers interested in STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics), but ones who were specifically interested in using STEM to solve a local environmental problem. “They’re trying to literally save where they live and fight for their community,” explained Nix. “That was when I made the decision to make this about environmental subjects.”
Inventing Tomorrow continues Nix’s work to bring climate change and environmental activism to the screen, which started with her 2014 doc, The Yes Men are Revolting. What excited and inspired Nix about the ISEF participants was that they were working on solutions that could spark real change. “Once you educate yourself on the realities of climate change, and a lot of other environmental issues, it can appear to be really hopeless. It’s incredibly severe, and it’s very urgent. But we do have options, and we do have choices. I’m always looking for stories where we see people showing us what those options could be. What I like about all of [my subjects in the film] is that they all look at the world around them, and they know to say, ‘That is not right. And I have to do something about it. I can use these science tools to be able to address it and come up with a solution to it.’”'What I like about all of my subjects in the film is that they all look at the world around them, and they know to say, ‘That is not right. And I have to do something about it.'Click To Tweet
Nix interviewed hundreds of the 1800 ISEF finalists from around 80 countries to find the four groups of contestants she finally decided to follow in Inventing Tomorrow. She had field producers on the ground meeting candidates, and she had a lot of Skype interviews. “We needed a cast that was regionally balanced, gender balanced, culturally balanced, and that the issues were balanced, too. I didn’t want all climate change projects or all water projects.” Between March 2017, when they knew who the finalists were and who they would follow, and May 2017, Nix traveled around the world to meet and interview her subjects in their homes and communities.
The film’s first (and strongest) third introduces us to each of the students in their environment so we can see firsthand what inspired their projects and how personally connected they are to their work. In Hawaii, we meet Jared Goodwin, whose project measured arsenic contamination in a local pond. “That pond that has arsenic poisoning is next door to his house. He’s been riding his bike there and going there with his grandma since he was a kid.” There’s a moving scene at the fair where Jared tells his grandmother that she was the inspiration for his project, and he wants her to take part of the ownership for his success.
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In Monterrey, Mexico, one of the most polluted cities in Latin America, we meet Fernando, Jesús, and Jose, who work on their project while holding part-time jobs. They’re designing a photocatalytic paint that can reduce air pollution when painted on the side of buildings. “You need to spend time in Mexico to realize that these young guys are just living in a cloud of smog. His uncle died of a respiratory disease. Jesus goes to play soccer, and he’s inside this cloud of pollution. That’s what motivating them to do what they want to do. They want their families to grow up healthy. They want to have kids and have them be able to breathe clean air.”
In Indonesia, we meet Shofi and Intan, who are designing a means of removing lead ions, a by-product of tin mining, from water bodies where mining effluent is dumped. “They are living in this completely tropical paradise in Indonesia that’s been completely devastated by the lead effluence from tin mining waste. We’re all using cell phones every single minute. All of our electronics, from a television to a toaster, use tin. That island that she lives on is the second largest source of tin mining in the world. It’s beautiful, and it’s very slowly being wrecked. The coral is dying. The fish are dying. The young people who live there can make more money if they tin mine than if they’re fishing, so they do. You can read that in an article, but to then go there, and see people’s faces, to spend time there and realize that this is a world and a community, you start to feel it in a different way.”'You can read an article, but to then go to Indonesia, and see people’s faces, to spend time there and realize that this is a world and a community, you start to feel it in a different way.'Click To Tweet
In Bangalore, India, we meet Sahithi, who is building an app to make testing water quality in fresh water bodies simple enough that anyone can do it. “Bangalore has this enormous population explosion because of tech,” Nix explained. “It’s the Silicon Valley of India. She’s looking at this place she grew up in get more and more crowded. There used to be thousands of lakes, and now there are only 93. They’re really polluted because they don’t have a sewage infrastructure to support the growth of the population. So they’re just dumping raw sewage into the lakes. The nitrous from that is causing the lake to die. Once they die, they become water, that turns into plant life, and then the plant life dies. And because people live next to the lakes, they catch fire. That’s why they catch fire all the time. That’s even more pollution because the humongous lake is totally on fire, which causes air pollution.”
“There’s much more awareness of environmental problems in the developing world than there is for kids in the industrialized world. In some communities in the industrialized world, that problem is in your face,” opined Nix. When shooting on the ground in these countries, Nix was careful to capture the landscape in wide shots, as well as where the environmental problem the students are addressing is in comparison to their homes and lives. It’s incredibly effective visual storytelling that gives us an emotional stake in the kids working to remediating the environmental damage next door.
The proximity of environmental damage to these kids’ lives is particularly striking when Nix visits a dying lake with Sahithi, where she’s gathering water samples. Nix recalled, “the phosphates that are in the sewage are building up and are causing these mounds of foam to cascade into streets and to suffocate her school bus. One of the reasons she first became aware of it is she goes over a bridge over one of the most problematic phosphate lakes, and they literally have to close the windows on the school bus because the foam is coming inside the bus as they’re on their way to the school. It’s surreal.”
The middle section of the film takes us to the ISEF fair, but it’s not your typical competition documentary. Nix is much more concerned with how the fair transforms young people — by connecting them with like-minded trailblazing individuals from around the world and by giving them the chance to really discuss their work with the judges — than whether they win or why.
“To meet other people that are like them is really transformative. They all talk about that. It really changes their lives. You’re meeting everybody and you realize that I can do this. You’re finding your tribe from around the world. They all stay in touch with people that they’ve met from all over the world, who are working on similar issues where they live, but from a different perspective. That is also transformative, to realize it’s bigger than you. You’ve got kids working in very different parts of the world, on really different issues, from very different cultures, and yet, there’s something that unifies them. They share a vision together, and the fair is the place where we realize that.”
“Many finalists of ISEF say that the judging is the part that they like the most: finally getting to talk to people about their projects who are really experts in their field. They get to have probably the best conversation they’ve ever had. I wanted to show that moment. It was the first time ISEF ever let cameras on the floor during judging.” There are 1000 judges at the fair, which means there’s one judge for every two finalists. As we see in the film, contestants’ interactions with judges are in-depth and meaningful.
The judges often ask students questions about the viability of their solution that they’d never thought about before. How does it fit in with the literature? How can it scale up? Most contestants are so consumed with one particular problem, and so focused on getting the science right, that they forget to think practically. Talking to the judges helps them consider whether and how their ideas could be adapted in the real world.
Nix values this process, which is why she follows all of the participants back home to their communities after the competition: to see what they do next and how ISEF has changed things for them. For Sahithi, it’s allowed her to do an internship in the US where she can continue to work on her project, turning it into something more readily usable. For the boys in Mexico, participating in the competition helps open doors: they’re all the first people in their family to attend university, and for the poorest of them, scholarships become a possibility because of ISEF. Perhaps even more importantly, attending ISEF helps give all of the finalists the confidence to keep pursuing their projects, confident in their abilities and knowing they’re not alone in the world.
“We have to do everything we can to empower this next generation with the tools that they need to ensure their own survival,” said Nix. “My generation failed, and left behind a really damaged planet. Science is one of the ways that we can possibly turn that around. We can turn that around… We need to make sure that kids are educated on how to do that and why to do that. If they’re not given a good STEM education, that’s not going to be possible. But they also need to understand what the problems are and how they might be addressed.”'Science is othered. It doesn’t make sense. People can learn this.'Click To Tweet
Nix’s hope is that Inventing Tomorrow will help make science and engineering seem more accessible as a career path for young people of all stripes. “We want people to be like, ‘Wow, I can do science. I don’t have to be an Einstein to do it. I just need to engage in it.’ I think there’s a way in which science is othered. It doesn’t make sense. People can learn this. We have to show kids the range of jobs and create better networking and mentorship opportunities to show young people that this is a path that they can be a part of, going forward.”
The protagonist of The Martian is a white man, but the film fundamentally gets the spirit of engineering. For a film about a young female scientist, catch the animated April and the Extraordinary World. We also wrote about how Ex Machina falls into all the worst and sexist clichés about scientists on film; not even the great performances can save it. Finally, we looked at the 2016 contenders for Sundance’s annual Alfred P. Sloan Prize for Science on Film.