WASHINGTON – Inspired by the tsunami that swept Southeast Asia in December,Amit Sharma wanted to do something to aid his native country of India. His family was not harmed,but the wave killed family friends.
The tragedy left Sharma,17,wondering why these catastrophic shifts in the Earth's tectonic plates were not detected sooner,triggering an evacuation that might have lowered the death toll.
Urged by his teacher,Sharma,and two of his science-minded classmates from Highland Park,N.J.,decided to take on a different type of humanitarian effort – they would create a model for a satellite system that would detect the precursors of an earthquake weeks before its occurrence.
The group's efforts paid off in prestige and in cash this week. They won the top spot in the senior division at one of the most competitive science competitions for young inventors,the Exploravision Awards,sponsored by Toshiba. The competition drew 4,405 entries.
Eight groups of winners,two from each of four age-group categories,came from across the country to showcase their futuristic projects to Toshiba executives,members of the National Science Teachers Association and representatives of the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
The competition,initiated 13 years ago,requires students to write a proposal for the invention,research its viability,create a model and a Web site. Each member of the four first-place team is taking home $10,000 and a Toshiba DVD player.
Sharma said his group spent months thumbing through science magazines and journals reading reports about earthquake technology.
The group's mentor,English teacher Nicole Marionni,said the trio quickly learned the five-month project was not just for science enthusiasts. They had to examine the effects of earthquakes spanning history and the international cooperation needed to make the system work.
Maronni said this years' winning projects adopted humanitarian theme,focusing more on using science or technology to benefit humans. She pointed to the group of boys from the kindergarten-to-third grade division. They concocted a belted device to help blind people navigate more easily. They won second place in their division,each taking home $5,000 and a DVD player.
“One kid in my group had a grandfather that was almost blind,” said Mitchell Tulli,9,of North Redding,Mass.
Attached to the belt,named “MiraclEyes 3000,” was a cell phone and a sensor that would beep when the person was about to run into something. The four young inventors have already planned their next undertaking,a device that would allow visually impaired people to check prices in stores before getting to the cashier.
Among the crowd reviewing the winning projects was Bill Nye,better known as “Bill Nye,the Science Guy.” Easily recognized by his signature bow tie and tall,thin frame,Nye admitted he seemed to be an attraction for the younger children.
Nye,who has attended the competition for four years,said seeing the young scientists' passion always evokes feelings of nostalgia,though,he said,“These kids seem a lot more focused than I was.”
Even if the idea is good,bringing an invention from concept to market is expensive.
Sharma said the cost of the earthquake project would climb into the millions for each of the required six satellites. Standing next to the much-less-expensive prototype hanging from the ceiling,Sharma laughed and pointed to the loosely attached,bowl-shaped radar atop the satellite: “You can get this colander at the store for about three bucks.”