Q & A with Laura Nix, Director and Producer of Inventing Tomorrow
“Our student scientists are observing the damaged planet they’ve inherited, asking the right questions, and inventing solutions to create a path forward. Their commitment to action and their clarity of purpose offers a model for how we should all proceed.”
- Laura Nix, Producer and Director
What made you decide to do a film based around a high school science fair?
I was approached by my producers Diane Becker and Melanie Miller to make a doc about the science fair ISEF, so I attended the fair in Phoenix in 2016 to both film and scout and immediately realized there was a great story to tell there as most people don’t know about the fair outside of the educational and science communities. The sense of hopefulness and optimism there was infectious. I found I was the most struck however by kids I met who were doing research because of issues they were confronting at home – whether it was lack of clean drinking water, or air pollution, or some other type of environmental challenge. They weren’t doing research because it would be cool on their college application, but because they were deeply and personally motivated to change where they lived.
How did you find and decide on the students you followed?
We started by reaching out to science teachers and fair directors all over the world, and asked them to identify students who were working on projects with an environmental theme. We then spent months interviewing hundreds of kids from all over the world. We were looking for kids who were doing science with a sense of purpose and who were addressing a range of environmental issues that were local, personal and that dealt with air, water, and earth. I was specifically looking for issues that were visual, and for students who could clearly describe their project to an audience. We purposefully went beyond the scope of just climate change, so we could tell a larger story of kids engaged in environmental stewardship. It was really important to me to create an emotional and character-based film, so I was also looking for kids who had a personal story or an obstacle that was compelling, so I could show how they were working to overcome it. We wanted diversity of region, race, and religion, and a balance of girls and boys. I traveled all over the world to meet the kids we eventually decided to film, and I followed them without having any idea of what would happen once they arrived at the fair. I spent time with all of them because I believed in them as people, and because I was fascinated by their ability to pay attention and ask the right questions about the world around them.
The film emphasizes the need for ingenuity and originality. After making it, how do you feel about the potential for ingenuity and originality to save humanity from itself?
I think each of our young scientists shows us a potential path forward, and it’s really up to us to decide to empower those young people. I’m hopeful that the film will show the absolute value of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Math) education in our culture. The key to creating innovative solutions for the future is access to high-quality STEM education. In the United States, we are not competitive with the rest of the world in that regard, and there are states where STEM education is coming under political fire. This stands in direct opposition to empowering the next generation to confront the future. We are not blocked by a lack of technological solutions; we’re blocked by political obstacles. Another thing that struck me about the kids was that they didn’t approach their work from a political standpoint at all. I find that hopeful, because they don’t see why politics should be an issue in addressing the environment. And they’re right; it’s not a political issue, it’s a moral issue.
The film documents some pretty intense environmental destruction, all within heavily populated areas, as people are continuing to go about their daily lives. What was that experience like for you and your crew?
The reality is that if you take a closer look at where you live, most places are facing environmental degradation. In some areas, you’re affected by it in a daily way. In others it might not be as visible, but dig a little deeper and you’ll find something in your own neighborhood. I was impressed by these students’ ability to observe where they were living, and identify what needed to be fixed. Whether or not they’re able to invent a solution today, their willingness to tackle the issue is what matters.
We do have options for how we as a culture can address these issues. But what really struck me about the kids was that they weren’t saying, “We need to stop this industry.” They were saying, “Industry is what gives people jobs where we live, so we need to engage in industrial remediation. There’s a way we could support our economy that doesn’t have to be so damaging.” It was interesting to me that all of the kids were invested in working within the systems that were already there. They wanted to come up with common-sense ways of making things better.