What is it?

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The Breakthrough Junior Challenge is making science sexy so young students are inspired to pursue it. Spawned by the Breakthrough Prize, which celebrates the best work in the areas of fundamental physics, life sciences and mathematics, the junior contest encourages students aged 13 to 18 to reflect on challenging concepts or complex theories in the same arenas, and to bring those big ideas to life in short, engaging videos.

The annual challenge is a collaboration between the Breakthrough Prize Foundation—which organises the Breakthrough Prizes founded by Yuri and Julia Milner, Sergey Brin and Anne Wojcicki, and Mark Zuckerberg and Priscilla Chan—and the Khan Academy, a non-profit organisation that provides free education through online means in various languages to anyone, anywhere, always.

How does it work?

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Young students submit a three-minute video that shows their understanding of a scientific theory in the most imaginative and original way they can. These videos can include dramatic constructions, documentary-style presentations, animation, motion graphics and other visual effects, and will be judged on engagement, illumination, creativity and difficulty.

On submission of their videos, student competitors will also be asked to review five other submissions in a peer-to-peer evaluation. The videos are then shortlisted for a panel of researchers, educators and scientists to consider before a popular vote singles out seven regional champions. The final selection committee, made up of professors, authors and astronauts, including some Breakthrough Prize winners, then judges the overall winner.

Why did it come about?

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US musician Will.i.am, who was a presenter at the 2016 Breakthrough Prize ceremony. (Photo: Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

The prize is a scholarship of up to US$250,000 for the winner, as well as US$50,000 for the science teacher who inspired that student, and a Breakthrough Science Lab for their school worth US$100,000, not to mention a trip for the junior champion to receive his or her award at the star-studded, televised Breakthrough Prize ceremony, attended by award-winning scientists and technologists from Silicon Valley and familiar faces from Hollywood.

The Breakthrough Junior Challenge’s mission is to bring more young people from everywhere and every background into science, technology, engineering and mathematics. “Our future depends on science and science depends on our youth,” said US musician Will.i.am when, alongside Priscilla Chan, he announced the Breakthrough Junior Challenge 2016 winner at the ceremony. 

Who has won in the past?

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Ryan Chester, winner of the 2015 Breakthrough Junior Challenge (Photo: Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

The inaugural Breakthrough Junior Challenge 2015 was won by 18-year-old Ryan Chester of the US. His video brings Einstein’s special theory of relativity to life through physical experiences, clear explanatory dialogue and simple motion graphics. It was viewed more than 4 million times within six months on YouTube, a huge achievement for a science video in the challenge’s first year.

Since winning the challenge, and thanks, in part, to the scholarship fund he was awarded, Chester has enrolled at Harvard University. “My life really has changed,” says Chester, who even had a day named after him by the mayor of his hometown of North Royalton, Ohio.

Who has won in the past? (continued)

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Hillary Diane Andales of the Philippines, winner of the 2017 Breakthrough Junior Challenge (Photo: Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

Last year’s contest, the third incarnation, was won by Hillary Diane Andales, 18, of the Philippines. Her video explains relativity and the equivalence of reference frames through real-life scenarios complemented by fun motion graphics. Andales had just missed out on the top prize the previous year but won the popular vote for the Asia region for her video showing an admirable understanding of the path integral formulation of quantum mechanics.

The 2016 challenge was jointly won by Singaporean Deanna See, 17, and Antonella Masini, 18, from Peru. See’s fascinating and relatable video about the issue of antibiotic resistance, and what happens when you use too much antibacterial product or abuse antibiotics, is engaging and relevant, while Masini’s enthusiastic explanation of quantum entanglement is a captivating and easy way to understand this complex physical phenomenon.  See is looking to study overseas while interning at a startup in Singapore, where she is working on a chatbot that will be able to answer any maths problem posed to it. Masini was accepted into MIT and Andales will be following in her footsteps when she starts at MIT next year.

Why is it important?

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Deanna See and Antonella Masini with the prize’s co-founder, Priscilla Chan. (Photo: Courtesy of Breakthrough Prize)

The next generation is our future. And our future needs scientists because, as Chester so accurately said when he accepted the 2015 prize, “Science is everything.” The Breakthrough Junior Challenge not only inspires creative thinking about science but also helps to ensure that future scientists are great communicators.

“Through the challenge, I came to realise my potential as a science communicator for the greater public,” said Andales. “I got to inspire so many young people, especially in my country, to appreciate science and to dream big.”

“When you learn a difficult thing, it is like magic when you understand it, but I also think that you have to share it because sharing it is important to the development of the world,” said Masini when she received her award in 2016.

Sharing can help inspire more young people to pursue science and maths. The glitz and glamour that surrounds this modern-day Nobel Prize and its junior extension is set to encourage more young people to pursue science, and that can only be good for the future of the world.

The winners of the 2018 Breakthrough Junior Challenge will be announced on November 4 at the Breakthrough Prize awards ceremony. For more information, visit breakthroughjuniorchallenge.org

(Related: Yuri And Julia Milner: Breakthrough Prize Founders On Philanthropy, Science And The Search For Alien Life)

Tags: Space, Education, Youth, Science, Breakthrough Junior Challenge, Breakthrough Prize