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Every year, Google holds an online science competition, where students from around the world are challenged to use science and technology to improve the world. The crop of brilliant student winners this year was so impressive, that we decided to highlight their projects and the impact they may have on the future for all of us.
After a year of submissions from insanely talented teenagers from around the world, Google announced the winners of the 2014 Google Science Fair on September 22nd at the Fox Theatre in Redwood City, CA. The grand prize winners get a $50,000 scholarship from Google.
The most amazing grand prize winners included the discovery of bacteria that could be used to speed up the germination process of certain crops by 50%, a search-and-rescue bot that can be used to find and save people in collapsed buildings, and sustainable methods to break down pollutants in the by-products of oil sand processes.
These are the kind of scientific solutions you’d usually expect from government grant research, or corporate development labs. Nope, these are just a few examples of what brilliant kids from around the world were able to develop through their firm grasp of science and technology.
Speeding Up Crop Production
Three 16 year old girls from Ireland — Ciara Judge, Emer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow — were inspired to develop their project after learning about the tragic 2011 famine in the Horn of Africa. In Somalia, 260,000 people died due to a massive drought and lack of food and water.
Most places that discuss the science project mention that the girls discovered how to increase crop production using a bacteria called Diazotroph. However, the story behind it is the most fascinating part of this project.
Emer Hickey’s mother actually noticed some unusual nodules on the roots of her pea plants. The three girls went to work trying to identify the nodules, and discovered with the help of their science teacher that the naturally occurring bacteria was known as Diazotroph. It’s a bacteria in soil that pea seeds use to germinate.
Over 11 months of grueling experiments using other crops, the girls finally made the tremendous discovery that seeds of certain plants — barley and oats — treated with the bacteria, grew an astonishing 50% faster than untreated seeds. The discovery means that these three girls now have bragging rights for literally curing world hunger. How cool is that?
Flybot — Search and Rescue Drone
A kid doing some serious representing for the United States was Mihir Garimella, a 14 year old from Fox Chapel, Pennsylvania. A pattern this year at the Google Science Fair seems to be modeling projects after nature — or biomimicry. This was the case with Mihir, as he modeled his small drones after the fruit fly.
This brilliant 14 year old – a self-described coder and robotics enthusiast – observed the flight behaviors of a fruit fly, and used those patterns to code similar patterns in a light-weight flying robot.
Mihir described his invention as follows:
Essentially, I created this really light-weight method of evading moving threats for a flying robot, by drawing inspiration from what fruit flies do when you try to swat them.
Mihir created small flying “sensor system” that mapped the distance of nearby moving objects over time using infrared distance sensors. He then — and remember, the kid is 14 years old – created “algorithms, to understand how threats are approaching, and decide how to escape…”
Mihir then performed multiple recorded experiments, comparing the escape paths of his own mini-drone to that of real fruit flies. He continued modifying his drone’s escape patterns until it perfectly mimicked that of the fruit fly. Mihir found that once he was done, his drone was extremely effective at evading falling threats — making it the perfect flying search-and-rescue drone inside an unstable environment, like a collapsed building.
Dissolving Oilsands Pollution
Move over all of you bio-chem scientists out there, because here comes Hayley Todesco, an 18 year old from Canada.
Hayley grew up in a part of Canada where oilsands are big industry, and wanted to develop a method to help clean up the most toxic substances produced in that process, known as tailings. Hayley modified the age-old technology to filter water, known as slow-sand filtration, to filter and speed up the degradation of the toxin in tailings known as Naphthenic Acid.
Hayley tested a variety of “biofilms” — a film inside the slow sand filter used to help degrade toxins — in order to discover one that would speed up the degradation of the difficult-to-destroy Naphthenic Acid.
Hayley took actual bacteria from oilsands tailing ponds, multiplied them, and then formed them into test biofilters inside her slow-sand filtration tests. Her testing proved that the bacteria-infused slow-sand filtration systems were capable of degrading the toxins in oil sands tailings a whopping 14 times faster than modern methods. Heyley described the effects of her discovery as follows:
“With oilsands development only expected to accelerate in the future, the significance of my findings is the discovery of a sustainable way to decrease the detoxification of the tailings ponds from centuries to decades.”
Wearable Sensors for the Elderly
Another American teen who landed a slot in the winners circle was 15 year old Kenneth Shinozuka of New York City. Kenneth won the Scientific American Science in Action Award at the Google Science Fair, for his invention that promises to help Alzheimer’s patients around the world.
The inspiration for Ken’s invention was actually a sweet story. He lived in the same home as his grandfather, who had Alzheimer’s. His mother was frustrated, because at night the grandfather would occasionally wander outside of the apartment aimlessly. For his science project, Kenneth set to work on a solution – creating an automated way to detect this “wandering” activity.
One night, while daydreaming, Kenneth explained that as he watched his grandfather get out of bed and his foot touch the floor, he realized that if he could place a pressure sensor on the heel of his grandfather’s sock, he could alert his mother to his grandfather’s wandering. Kenneth described his efforts like this:
“I’d been working on the idea since 2012. I started by creating a sensor that could measure pressure, but it also had to be thin and flexible enough to be worn on a heel or in a sock. I then learned how to design a very small circuit that could create a wireless signal. Finally, I had to code an app so the signal would trigger a sound in my aunt’s smartphone, waking her up. My device has caught 100% of my grandfather’s wandering, and he no longer has accidents.”
Kenneth discovered that technology could be utilized in a way to help our aging society, and his very first invention won him his very first prestigious award – with many more to come later in his life as a future neuroscientist, no doubt.
Talk – A Breath Communication Device
Never to be outdone when it comes to technology, India is of course also represented in the list of winners – specifically, 16 year old Arsh Shah Dilbagi.
This young man set out to help the 1.4% of the world’s population that suffers from a paralysis that forces them to use alternative communication devices (AAC), like Stephen Hawking, for example. His “Talk” device uses a fairly simple electro-mechanical microphone that can interpret a person’s short puffs of breath as morse code, interpret the code, and then “speak” those words out loud.
Dilbagi explained that modern devices are bulky and slow, and can’t be used by everyone. As an alternative, his device costs less than $100, and anyone can learn how to use it.
Users can control the unit by exhaling short breaths out of their nose or mouth, and the unit speaks for them. The only “learning curve” users will face is learning morse code fluently enough to “tap out” their words with their breath. Sounds nearly impossible, but in the video above, Dilbagi demonstrates how it can be done – and it is truly astonishing.
All of these kids prove that it’s never too early to start changing the world. Kudos to all of the amazing 2014 Google Science Fair winners in every age group.
What amazing inventions do you think may be in the running in 2015? Which of the 2014 projects impressed you the most? Are you a teen who loves doing science experiments? Search for inspiration with the Idea Springboard. And let’s discuss in the comments section below!