At a time when American teens rank 24th in the world in math and science comes Whiz Kids, Tom Shepard’s delightful documentary about three 17-year-old high school students -- Ana Cisneros, Harmain Khan and Kelydra Welcker -- who compete for the Science Talent Search. The nation’s oldest and most prestigious science competition, these working-class teenagers need some of that precious Science Talent Research prize money in order to afford college.
A Science Talent Search finalist himself in 1987, Shepard moved to filmmaking during his years at Stanford. His previous credits include, Scout’s Honor, about gays in the Boy Scouts, and Knocking, a film about Jehovah Witnesses.
Currently living and working in San Francisco, we caught up with Shepard to talk about science, storytelling and red harvester ants.
John Esther: I understand you were in the Science Fair back in 1987 doing something about harvesting ant pheromones?
Tom Shepard: [Laughs]. Yes, I was actually cutting the abdomens off of red harvester ants in Colorado Springs, playing with their pheromones. I was quite the science geek when I was kid.
How did you mesh the majors of biology and film at Stanford?
I know there was some research done about those who were finalists in the Science Fair and is was like eighty percent or more of them go on to PhDs in sciences, doctors, working in labs. I felt oriented in that direction when I went to college – maybe I felt a little obligated. Then I took cultural studies courses -- GLBT studies, film studies, African-American studies – and it was more interesting to me. I was definitely more interested in telling stories. I had already taken all the pre-med courses so it was easier to tack on the film degree than scrap the courses.
Did you approach films from a biological for scientific perspective?
Only to the extent I took some ethnography classes that were a little bit more like cultural anthropology. That was as close as I got to “scientific” filmmaking.
In light of the processes of hypothesis, research and documentation, it seems more natural you would make documentaries rather than fictional features.
I think so. I feel like the chance to make changes is greater. Educate people and open hearts at the same time.
You mentioned that before in something I read. Do you find science is often too cold?
I did not learn in a cold, dispassionate way. I learned it in communal ways and going to science fairs. It was always really engaging, working in the lab. We hoped one of the outcomes of Whiz Kids is to humanize science, make it more accessible. We would have work-in-progress screenings of the film and really educated people would come and they would start to hear kids talk about a level of his or her research and you could see the eyes start glossing over. That’s really unfortunate. Look at the issues Whiz Kids raises and issues we’re now suppose to debate. The BP oil spill is a really good example. If you have a background in science, you might know how you want your congressperson to deal with it. It has changed since the time I was in college. Beforehand there was an emphasis on having kids specialize very early and then you go into a PhD program and you are the expert in some very specific, nanotechnology -- at the expense of seeing the larger picture.
Why did you pick these three students in particular?
We were drawn to these kids because they didn’t have those sorts of opportunities and yet there were doing it on their own. They had family and mentors but they were largely pursuing this on perseverance and deep belief in themselves -- that what they were doing mattered. They didn’t come from environments where there had been traditions.
The film argues we also need to get this country back into a more scientific mode.
Yes, we do need to increase the number of engineers and chemists, but we need to make the whole of society more technically literate -- make science more accessible at an early age. Science is a really cool thing. It’s so creative, intellectual and engaging on so many fronts.
Lastly, what do you think about interviews where you talk about yourself and your work? Do they serve the work? Should the work speak for itself?
That’s an interesting question. It’s great to have both things. The work should speak for itself, but oftentimes a work that’s reduced to an hour or 90 minutes raises more questions than it answers. That’s why people love going to film festivals. They love to talk about film or the filmmakers and understand the choices you made and what would you do in the future.
For information on how to order a DVD or upcoming screenings, go to http://whizkidsmovie.com