Meet Four of the Finalists at This Year's Google Science Fair

Eighteen finalists from more than 120 countries come to California to compete in the Google Science Fair

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Tekla Perry: In September, 18 teenagers from around the world came to Google’s Mountain View, Calif., headquarters, to compete in the final round of the 2013 Google Science Fair. They were selected in an online competition that drew thousands of entries from more than 120 countries. The winner, Eric Chen, from San Diego, Calif., created a computer model of a key protein in the flu virus and then used that model to screen chemical compounds to find ones that could potentially be used to fight the virus. Chen received [US] $50 000 in scholarship money and a trip to the Galapagos.

But the Google Science Fair isn’t just about the winner. It’s about kids all over the world opening their eyes to the problems around them and turning to science to find the solutions.

I’m Tekla Perry, and I’m at the 2013 Google Science Fair in Mountain View, Calif. This is the third of what has become an annual competition that starts out online and finishes here, at Google Headquarters. One of this year’s judges, Mary Lou Jepsen, head of the display division of Google X, explains how Google’s process is different from the typical science fair circuit.

Mary Lou Jepsen: This one is different because it is online. Talent is universal, one mind per person, but opportunity isn’t. If there’s not a science fair in your local regional area, you can’t really compete. This is online. You can fill out what’s the problem, what do you propose as the solution, how are you going about it, what did you find out, what are your results, what are your conclusions, and you can put it online, with videos and pictures and so forth, and basically create a conversation with a community of students but also of scientists and engineers.

Tekla Perry: Although they came from all over the world, the finalists had one thing in common—they had opened their eyes to what was happening around them, saw problems, and looked for solutions.

Take Charalampos Ioannou.

Charalampos Ioannou: So hello, I’m Charalampos Ioannou, I’m from Greece, and I am 18 years old.

You know, I saw my grandmother one day trying to grasp the television remote control, and the remote control was sliding from her fingers. And I asked myself how can I solve such a problem.

Tekla Perry: He built a glove that senses motion and instantly uses built-in motors to give the hand muscles a boost.

Charalampos Ioannou: It’s an exoskelton glove that enhances and supports the strength of the human palm. It’s for people who suffer from disability who can move even slightly their fingers, but they don’t have the proper amount of grasping force in order to handle everyday objects and devices.

Tekla Perry: The first prototype took him 2 and a half years to put together; for version 2 he turned to 3-D printing. This time, it took just six months to design, 4 hours to manufacture, and cost just €100. He just graduated high school and is now looking to mass-produce the glove.

Then there’s Elif Bilgen

Elif Bilgen: Hi I’m Elif Bilgen and I’m from Istanbul Turkey.

Tekla Perry: Bilgen found her problem while gazing at the Bosphorus.

Elif Bilgen: In Istanbul we have the Bosphorus. The Bosphorus is such a beautiful place; it has the sea and such a beautiful view. And then you come in closer and look down on the sea and you can see plastic bottles and plastic bags floating, and I was really disturbed by this problem we had and I wanted to figure out a solution to this problem.

While I was researching bioplastics, I found out that in the University of Southhampton they could actually make plastics out of potatoes by extracting the starch from them and then actually using it.

And I wanted to use something that we didn’t consume, perhaps of organic waste material, and it was then I started to research the topic of fruit peels and everything. So, banana peel was the first and last fruit peel I tried, because it is a really thick peel and it also contains a lot of starch in it, and so this makes it the perfect candidate to make bioplastics out of it.

Tekla Perry: Getting from concept to reality took a while.

Elif Bilgen: For two years I conducted 12 trials, the first 10 failed, and the last 2 were the only ones that were successful. You dip the peel in a solution which is a preservative so it keeps it from decaying, and afterwards you boil it , puree it, add some chemicals so it breaks down the starch and everything, then you pour mixture in petri dish and bake it.

Tekla Perry: Viney Kumar is from Sydney, Australia. But his scientific journey started in a traffic jam in India.

Viney Kumar: The inspiration for my project was being stuck in traffic in India, and I saw this emergency vehicle, and it was completely stuck in traffic, unable to move, and I thought why was this happening and how could I solve this problem.

Tekla Perry: He’s a high school student, so certain approaches are out of his grasp.

Viney Kumar: I started by using a radar signal, a special frequency signal. However that didn’t work cause I didn’t have the background in electronics to implement this. And then I also tried using service providers. However, I didn’t have access to these service providers so this model didn’t work.

Tekla Perry: He settled on using GPS and Google mapping technology to determine the location of emergency vehicles and an Android app to alert drivers to an emergency vehicle’s approach. Compared with a siren, the app gives drivers more detailed information and gives it to them sooner, making it easier to get out of the way. Kumar:

Viney Kumar: What happens is an emergency vehicle gets its own GPS location. It then updates that location up to a Web server on the Internet every 2 seconds. And that’s on the emergency vehicles device. Now on the target vehicles device, or the drivers on the road device, what’s happening is they’re going up to the same Web server and getting the same location statistics on the emergency vehicle’s location and destination, because destination is important as it helps inform the drivers decisions. So once they’ve got that, the program computes it with audio and visual warnings on Google maps at 800 meters and 500 meters to pull over for the emergency vehicle.

Tekla Perry: He tested his project on the road and is now looking to contact car manufacturers. He wants to get them to consider including this kind of system in electronic dashboards, where it would activate as needed.

Ann Makosinski also found the idea for her project far from home.

Ann Makosinski: Hi, I’m Ann Makosinski and I’m from Victoria, British Columbia, Canada, and I’m 15 years old. Today I brought my project which is called the hollow flashlight, where I powered a flashlight solely from the heat of a human hand, no batteries involved.

One of my friends in the Phillipines, she failed her grade because she didn’t have enough— she didn’t have any electricity, she didn’t have any light to study with.

Tekla Perry: Makosinski used Peltier tiles, which are solid-state devices that absorb heat and produce electricity. Her prototype cost $25 to assemble, but it’ll cost a lot less, of course, if it’s manufactured in quantity—which might just happen after she refines her design a bit.

Ann Makosinski: I am actually not allowed to say anything about it ’cause I signed a confidential agreement thing.

Tekla Perry: Makosinski and her flashlight won the 15–16 year old age group; Kumar and his early warning signaling system won the 13–14 year old age group. The winner of each age group receives a $25,000 scholarship. Bilgen and her banana-peel plastic won the Voter’s Choice Award and the $50 000 Scientific American Science in Action award.

Google’s Jepsen wishes she could give every finalist—indeed, every contestant—a prize, or at least a big pat on the back.

Mary Lou Jepsen: They are tackling the big problems they see and they developed some personal passion to address these problems through things that they have encountered in their lives, and so they’ve got the fire in the belly for this.

Tekla Perry: Jepsen would like to see kids all around the world designing their own science experiments in their homes and schools. She’s thinking about how she and other engineers and scientists around the world could help make that happen.

Mary Lou Jepsen: Doing science is light-years away from reading books about science.

I cofounded One Laptop per Child so this is an area near and dear to my heart, on this scale of giving kids another way out. People stop learning, I believe, when they stop asking the question why or why not, and things like the Google science fair allow them to continue asking that and getting positive feedback.

Tekla Perry: In Mountain View, Calif., I’m Tekla Perry.

Photo: Google