Creative Science: The Next Generation

See how today’s young scientists are making a dramatic impact in STEM fields

When 17-year-old Harry Paul walked on stage to claim one of the top prizes at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) last May, he was greeted with an especially loud burst of cheers and a standing ovation. For the previous two years, Paul had competed at ISEF from his wheelchair. The Port Washington, NY, native was born with a curvature of the spine known as congenital scoliosis, which had forced him to endure more than a dozen surgeries. The teenager wanted to help others avoid the pain he’d been through. Paul took home the Engineering: Materials and Bioengineering best-in-category award for developing a spinal implant that grows over time and might someday allow kids like him to get by with as few as five operations.

Created by the Society for Science & the Public (SSP) in 1950, ISEF is now the premiere international science and engineering competition for high schoolers—part of an expanding array of such events worldwide that inspire young people to explore their world and their talents through science. A total of 1,787 students, winners of their local, regional and national science fairs, competed in ISEF 2014 for more than $5 million in prizes.

“Sometimes a student just hits it out of the park the first summer they work on [a project],” said Michele Glidden, Chief Program Officer at SSP. But like Paul, about a fifth of participants build their projects over multiple years of ISEF competition. Personally motivated research is especially common among these continuation projects, she added.

Now a freshman at Tufts University, Paul is working with an engineering company to further develop and test his implant. Last month, he had the opportunity to tell President Obama about his project (appearing at 7:06) at the 2015 White House Science Fair, which celebrates winners of several science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) competitions.

Threads of innovation

San Jose, CA, native and lifetime sewer Holly Jackson’s project on the strength of various sewing stitches has landed her in the company of the president not just at the Science Fair, but also last October after the 14-year-old won the top prize at the 2014 Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars), SSP’s middle school competition. As students waited to meet Obama, Jackson wowed White House staffers leaving a meeting about protective wear for Ebola virus by explaining how the sewing and stitches of the suits were integral to caregivers’ safety.

As Glidden explained, Holly’s “simple but elegant” project shows that winning research doesn’t necessarily have to be overly complex or conducted in a formal research lab. In fact, fewer than half of last year’s ISEF projects were conducted at a research institution. “At the middle school level, we’re really looking for quality methodology,” she explained. Unlike ISEF, at which students are judged solely on their projects, the 30 MASTERS finalists form teams of five to solve science and engineering challenges while judges watch how they interact.

STEM to combat hunger

One criticism of conventional science fairs is that they leave out kids who don’t have access to the school and regional science fairs that feed large competitions like ISEF. The Google Science Fair attempts to level the playing field by allowing students ages 13 to 18 to compete online as individuals or in teams. Participants create a project site online to give details of their experiments, results and interpretations, along with a video or slide presentation. Like Intel ISEF, the Google fair has high stakes: students compete for some serious cash and other incredible prizes like a 10-day National Geographic expedition to the Galapagos Islands.

The top prize is a $50,000 scholarship from Google. Last year the money was split among three 16-year-olds from Kinsale, Ireland, who are using their love of gardening and microbiology to aid the global food crisis. Ciara Judge, Émer Hickey and Sophie Healy-Thow became intrigued by nodules they found on pea plants roots in Hickey’s garden. The girls soon learned that the nodules are home to a type of bacteria that increase the plant’s growth by drawing nitrogen from the air. They tested whether the bacteria could be used to improve the germination and growth of cereal grains, potentially improving crop yields for farmers in developing countries. After manually recording more than 130,000 datapoints, they found the bacteria improved barley yields by almost 75% and increased the speed of crop germination by 50%. As the girls explain in their Google Science Fair video, they hope to extend their field trials and ultimately bring their findings to farmers all over the world.

Braille + LEGO = Braigo

Google played a more indirect role in Shubham Banerjee’s project. When the 12-year-old from Santa Clara, CA, asked his parents how blind people read, they told him to Google it. As he learned about Braille, he was astonished to discover that the printers that create the raised dots cost around $2,000. Banerjee set out to create a more affordable alternative for the blind community. He used a LEGO® robotics kit to build a working Braille printer that he named Braigo and made the design and software freely available online. He went on to win his school and county science fairs.

Last summer, with his mom as CEO and his dad on the Board of Directors, Banerjee formed Braigo Labs Inc. and released a more advanced prototype of his invention using desktop printer parts and an Intel® chip. He became possibly the youngest recipient ever of venture capital funding last fall when Intel announced it would invest in Braigo Labs. The Braigo printer, which will cost under $500, is slated for release later this year, and Banerjee is already promoting the project across various news outlets, like in this NBC Nightly News interview.

Spreading science

Science competitions aren’t just a fun and potentially lucrative after-school hobby; they are a critical part of educating the next generation of scientists. The two newest sets of science education guidelines, the Common Core State Standards and Next Generation Science Standards, emphasize the value of firsthand research experience. “The hands-on research and being able to conduct independent research are key,” said Glidden. “Owning a problem and then owning trying to find a solution is incredibly empowering.”

Paralleling the collaborative nature of the science and engineering fields, mentors certainly play an integral role in most of the students’ successes. But the creativity of the students is remarkable, noted Glidden. Unlike mentors who have been in the field for years and programmed to think a certain way, students aren’t afraid to approach a problem differently. “The mentors get inspired by the young people’s thinking and fresh excitement,” she explained.

One theme that runs through many young peoples’ stories is the large role that their own experiences and personal motivations play in their projects. Kids are naturally curious, and with a little encouragement and the tools to help them explore, they create amazing things. So set out those binoculars, LEGOs or vegetable seeds and watch what happens. As famed astrophysicist and director of the Hayden Planetarium Neil deGrasse Tyson said when asked how to get kids interested in science: “Get out of their way.”