20 Under 20: Reality TV that won’t embarrass Silicon Valley

Taylor Wilson might have built a working nuclear fusion reactor in his parent’s garage at age 14 and delivered a TED talk on his success, but he still finds some things scary. Namely, driving and roller coasters.

Such are the young genuiuses we meet in CNBC’s new documentary “20 Under 20,” which chronicles the selection process and methodology behind this year’s Thiel Fellows, individuals at or below the age of 20 who recieve $100,000 to spend two years pursuing their dreams in technology and science with one requirement: dropping out of school.

The two-part documentary follows the 40 or so finalists during their time in San Francisco before being narrowed down to the 20 winners. The documentary is perhaps a little too long and at times overly dramatic, but it does portray a fairly inspiring view of Silicon Valley and entrepreneurship. The tech scene in “20 Under 20” is not one with caged tigers or pool parties or pimped-out mansions, but rather young people with dreams of making an impact in science, medicine and technology. And that’s a cool thing to see.

Much of the documentary revolves around the question the Thiel Fellows eventually face: Is graduation from college worth the money it takes to stay in top schools, or would it be better to pursue your dreams now and take a risk of becoming an unsuccessful college dropout? On one hand, if you’re building nuclear fusion reactors at age 14, you probably don’t need a degree to turn out relatively successful in your field. On the other hand, Peter Thiel himself graduated from Stanford and found many of his closest business partners among the university’s alumni. The documentary spends a little too long belaboring this point — clearly it’s up to every fellow to decide for himself or herself — but it does present an interesting commentary on the value of higher education in the U.S.

The Thiel Fellowship was created and funded by Peter Thiel, an entrepreneur and investor who co-founded PayPal and was the first outside investor in Facebook(s fb), who believes passionately in the power of science and tech to change the world. While a Facebook investor, he’s not a huge fan of entrepreneurs spending their time on social and consumer apps. “We wanted flying cars, instead we got 140 characters,” says the manifesto of his venture capital firm, and the priorities of the scholarship reflect this. While it’s received its fair share of criticism, it’s now in its second year and going strong.

The documentary does have the conventions of a dramatic showdown at times (there’s the girl with stage fright who freaks out on stage, the one who thinks she’s too good for the program and gets overconfident, and of course the critical judges re-hashing each contestant), but overall it’s an interesting look at some of the youngest and brightest minds in America. The finalists, all between the ages of 15-20, are passionate about a wide range of topics like nuclear fusion, software engineering, 3D printing, public health and microfinance, all while attending school. It’s impressive to think what most of them could do with the time and money to pursue those passions full-time.

The Thiel Fellowship just announced the 2012 Fellows in July, the second class the program has produced.

Below is the CNBC trailer for the documentary, which will air on CNBC August 13 and 14 at 10 PM local time: