Young scientists and engineers get inspired

Research projects tackle tough questions

As I walked around the convention center in San Jose, Calif., last week talking with students at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, I was struck by how many of the projects were inspired by something personal. These young scientists noticed that something was wrong, and then—here’s the best part—they actually tried to fix it.

Take Gary Kurek, a senior from Bonnyville, Canada. Kurek came up with the idea for a new walker-wheelchair hybrid when three of his close family members started to have trouble walking. “I watched them go through progressively worse debilitating states,” he said. Kurek wasn’t satisfied with the wheelchair option, because it forced his family members to sit down all the time. He wanted his family members to be able to stand up and stretch, to move and to have normal face-to-face social interactions when they wanted to.

Kurek’s invention, called the Rollator Wheelchair Hybrid, is a cross between a traditional wheelchair and a walker, providing a lot more flexibility than either of the two alone. The Rollator weighs in at 40 pounds, has a tight turning radius and can climb stairs, Kurek says. So far, the Rollator has been tested with dummies, but Kurek says that he hopes to soon get the device to people who need it.

And take three high school juniors from Uyo, Nigeria. These enterprising scientists turned weeds native to Nigeria into a homegrown litmus test. Litmus is made from extracts of lichen, which doesn’t grow in Nigeria. David Essien, Thompson Idara and Wisdom Ebong figured out how to make their own pH indicators by grinding up six weeds. The trio soaked filter paper in the solution of weeds and let the strips dry. The papers, named Kaffot strips after the students’ school, turned bright red when exposed to acids, and yellow or green when exposed to a base. Kaffot strips could distinguish between bases of different pHs. Such backyard pH measurements could be used in chemistry experiments in their school, the students said.

Hamza Mallah, a sophomore from Saida, Lebanon, drew inspiration for his project from his many long days of babysitting for his nieces and nephews. Mallah got tired of yelling at the kids for sitting too close to the television, so he invented a device that disables the TV set if someone is sitting nearby. His invention, called Smart TV, has an infrared motion detector built in. A side benefit? Smart TV can also help find the remote.

There were many, many more inspired — and inspiring — kids, such as Palestinian freshmen Nour Alarda and Asil Shaar, who designed an electronic walking cane that senses holes, pits and rubble. The girls wanted to help blind people move about their hazard-filled refugee camp better, they said. And Italian junior Elalim Vukovic developed a new treatment for mosquito bites and wasp stings because she was tired of itching. Sodium bicarbonate—or baking soda—takes the sting and itch away, she found.

Without a doubt, these students are all smart enough to spot a problem, but they are also dedicated and brave enough to remedy it.

Laura Sanders is the neuroscience writer. She holds a Ph.D. in molecular biology from the University of Southern California.

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