West Hartford Student Reaches Semifinals of Prestigious International Video Contest

Sam Rothfarb's video, "Flu Pandemic!" has reached the semifinals of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge. Screenshot from video

Sam Rothfarb, a junior at Conard High School in West Hartford, needs social media support of the community from Sept. 7-20 to reach the finals of the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global competition for STEM-related videos.

By Ronni Newton

The flu was all over the news last winter, with local, state, and national health experts launching educational and media campaigns to urge everyone to get vaccinated in order to protect themselves as well as those with fragile immune systems.

Sometimes the message was too complicated, or convoluted, or didn’t catch people’s attention.

In a video that runs just under 3 minutes, Conard junior Sam Rothfarb explains – in a clear, concise, and entertaining way – how and why the flu can become a pandemic, why everyone should get vaccinated even if the vaccine is not failsafe, and advocates development of a universal flu vaccine.

Rothfarb, a 16-year-old West Hartford resident, created his “Flu Pandemic!” video during the spring and early summer as his entry into the Breakthrough Junior Challenge, a global competition where teens ages 13-18 submit a 3-minute video on a STEM topic. “Explain a big scientific idea in fundamental physics, life sciences or mathematics with a short video,” states the Breakthrough Junior Challenge website.

Rothfarb’s “Flu Pandemic” has now reached the semifinal stages of the contest – meaning that his video is in the top 29 out of more than 3,000 submissions from all over the world. Beginning Friday, Sept. 7, the community can help him reach finalist status by voting for it on the Breakthrough Facebook page.

Rothfarb was taking A.P. Biology at Conard last year, and utilizing Khan Academy programs as part of the course. He learned about the contest because Khan Academy, along with National Geographic and Cold Spring Harbor Lab, are sponsors of the contest, with funding from technology leaders like Mark Zuckerberg (Facebook founder) and Sergey Brin (Google co-founder).

“I love making videos,” Rothfarb said. Video is his medium of choice for class projects, he said, and when he found out about the contest he jumped at the opportunity.

Making this video was much more complex than the other projects he’s worked on, Rothfarb said. He estimated it took 100-150 hours to shoot and edit the video. He appears personally in the video, along with an avatar he created to provide some comic relief.

Rothfarb learned graphics from a class he took at Conard, but this project required more advanced technique. The video animation was done through Adobe After Effects, which he taught himself to use by watching YouTube videos. “It was a great opportunity to learn,” Rothfarb said.

He also did the voiceover for the avatar. Rothfarb said that his four summers of theatrical training at Stagedoor Manor and appearance in a Conard play came in handy, but he still had to do multiple takes to get it just right. His younger brother, Max, also a Conard student, helped out by providing the music, and his mother, who is a physician, provided some consultation on proper terminology.

Selecting the flu as the topic for the video wasn’t too difficult a decision, Rothfarb said. The guidelines specified that the video had to be science or math related.

“This year is the 100th anniversary of the 1918 flu pandemic,” Rothfarb said. And there has been plenty of recent discussion about the need for a universal flu vaccine, with Bill Gates even pledging $12 million of funding for its devlopment.

“It’s a timely and important issue for people to learn about,” Rothfarb said.

“We’re extremely excited for him and proud that he’s representing Conard,” said Principal Julio Duarte. From an educational perspective, this project is such a great example of truly authentic learning, he said.

“This totally came from him,” said Duarte, and shows the type of initiative that the school is striving to ignite in all students.

The videos are judged on engagement, illumination, creativity, and difficulty of the subject matter. There’s an initial peer-to-peer review, and all entrants are required to judge at least five other videos (Rothfarb said he reviewed about 40). After peer review the top 75 move to an evaluation panel of “top-class scholars and science leaders from across the world,” and the result is the 30 semifinalists.

Rothfarb was absolutely thrilled to be named a semifinalist.

Reaching the finalist phase – and this is where Rothfarb needs the support of the West Hartford community – is based in part on a popular vote. The winner of the popular vote automatically becomes a finalist, has their video posted on the Khan Academy website, and is in the running for an amazing grand prize that will also benefit their school and the district.

Seven regional winners are also named and progress to the final round, as do several chosen by the esteemed members of the scientific board.

“Being a finalist would be great publicity for the school,” Rothfarb said. It would also certainly be a great thing to have on his college application – especially since he’s considering design as a career.

The grand prize winner receives a $250,000 college scholarship, $100,000 for their school to be used for the sciences, and $50,000 for a teacher of the winner’s choosing.

Rothfarb is asking the West Hartford community – and their friends, and family members – to help him reach the finals. To vote, visit the Breakthrough Facebook page from Sept. 7-20 and [if you like the video, which you likely will!] give Rothfarb’s video a positive reaction (like, love, haha, or wow) and/or share it. The video with the most shares and positive reactions becomes the popular vote winner and is an automatic finalist.

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