Last month I had the honor of helping judge the Scientific American Science in Action award finalists, another set of 15 young people who dedicated their research and efforts and budding scientific acumen toward finding solutions to challenging environmental, health and social problems.
We ultimately selected two very deserving 14 year old boys from Swaziland, Africa, who came up with a scalable yet inexpensive hydroponics system for their homeland, and these two boys are also entrants in the general Google Science Fair.
During the judging process I wrote a blog post about a fantasy I had for finding a way to reward all these great young people so they could continue to work together to "save the world". In effect I wanted to explore the idea of creating a kind of "Marvel Team-Up" uniting these internationally dispersed kids into a kind of "youth Avengers" whose special talents and projects could be put together synergistically to create a whole much greater than the sum of its parts.
I described my own ideas for how each Science in Action kid's project could fit like a puzzle piece into a holistic "best practice model."
Now I would like to take the opportunity before flying to meet the Google Science Fair finalists to do the same thing with their projects -- a possible "neural network" for synergy, a first stab at finding some connections that could lead to positive unintended consequences.
How they might fit together:
I start my journey of connections on the far right side of this "map of the Google Science Fair finalists".
Raghavendra Ramachanderan, 17, has discovered a way to win energy back from spent fuel through the process of "Visible Light Deoxygenation". The idea is that, for example, a liquid fuel like hexane (a hydrocarbon) can be oxidized through burning or through a fuel cell to create work or electricity, and then the spent fuel reconstituted through catalyst mediated exposure to sunlight. We can describe this as a kind of "solar reforming" of burned fuel. By carrying the process out on glucose and turning it into hexane, Raghavendra demonstrated the possibility of taking this radical process for energy conservation further. His conclusion, " The success of this experiment will show that fuel can be used repeatedly, since converting used fuel to fuel again using sunlight, behaves like a system where sunlight is trapped into molecules of fuel, which is released upon burning them."
So Raghavendra is working on solving our energy problem, helping ensure that we never run out of fuel, even when the oil runs out.
Meanwhile, nearbye, Rohit Fenn, 16, has re-visited a technology that hasn't changed much since it was designed over 300 years ago: the flush toilet, invented by John Harrington in 1596. Rohit lamented the fact that in much of India today not only is sanitation poor and power lacking but clean water is scarce, so simply flushing an average of 72 liters of drinking quality water per day per household could be considered criminally irresponsible.
He also noted that many of the urban and rural poor can't even begin to consider upgrading from disease carrying pit latrines to hygienic toilets because the water resources simply don't exist. Either the water itself is unavailable or the electric power needed to pump it is lacking.
His solution: to invent a simple foot-pedal powered vacuum pump design that any plumber could build out of local materials and get the same efficiency per flush using only half the water.
Luckily, Raghavendra and Rohit live in the same city so theoretically they could get together, but in an urban agglomeration as large as Bangalore, with over 8.5 million citizens, it is unlikely they would ever meet. Fortunately they will meet this weekend at Googleplex in Moutain View California half a world away, and have the chance to bring their solutions together for all of us.
It makes sense: if, for example, we built a demonstration eco-home as a best practice model and installed Rohit's new toilet design, we would radically reduce our water consumption. But we would still need energy to pump the water to the holding tank so we could flush. And that is where Raghavendra's invention comes in.
Many households throughout the world (and certainly in India where electric infrastructure is spotty or lacking or subject to interruptions) rely on a gas or diesel generator for either primary or backup electricity. But fuel is expensive. And when the fuel is all used up, not only do their lights go out, but taps run dry and the toilets don't flush.
I experienced this difficulty in the Guatemala City slum of Meskital when staying with a Maya Quiche friend -- there was a city wide blackout that lasted in this impoverished neighborhood for an entire week. With 8 people staying in the same tiny apartment and only one small bathroom things got difficult needless to say. Since I was staying on the top floor near the unfinished roof (where I was installing a 400 Watt Air403 Wind generator as a gift to the family) I solved my own problem by getting two paint buckets, filling one with leaf and grass clippings snipped from weeds along the road and using the other as a composting toilet that I only had to empty into a ditch in a vacant lot once a week. The others weren't yet adapted to this solution so they had the hardship of walking to a public toilet. The home bathroom, which was useless and backed up and smelling, had to be simply locked until the electricity was restored a week later.
Having gone through this experience I can immediately see how Raghavendra and Rohit's innovations could help in situations like this. With only half the water needed for toilets a one time pumping event could fill the roof tank and it would last twice as long. Meanwhile, the spent fuel from the generator (assuming it was collected appropriately) could be recycled using a catalyst in sunlight back into fuel -- or, probably more realistically, glucose containing food wastes could be sunlight reformed into liquid fuels like hexane for combustion in the generator.
So this is an example of synergies in science and action with just the first two finalists. It will be great to observe them meeting and interacting.
But let's continue our journey across the map.
Moving north to Lucknow, India, we meet Sumit Singh, 14, who created a system for "Verticle Multi-Level Farming to Increase Crop Yields - An Affordable and Feasible Design". Sumit is familiar to readers of our blog because his project was also a finalist in the Scientific American Science in Action award, and is now up for consideration in the Google Science Fair too.
Using Google Sketchup and a brilliant application of vector geometry in the virtual world and then building a real-world prototype from common bamboo and mud bricks, Sumit made it possible to radically improve food crop yields in constrained spaces such as rooftop gardens. He demonstrated the proper horizontal and vertical spacing to make maximum use of the sunlight available and realized a design that would use gravity to use limited quantities of water most efficiently.
When I think back to my week in the Meskital slums of Guatemala putting up the wind-mill generator, I wish we had Sumit's solution for rooftop agriculture. I can envision, in our best-practice model eco-home, having Sumit's Verticle Multi-Level urban farming solution on the roof beneath a 2000 liter water storage tank. Using fuel created from waste starch using Raghavendra's solar catalysed deoxygenation reaction, we would pump water to fill the tank and recharge batteries for electric lights. The water would then flow down through drip irrigation into Sumit's agricultural platform towers. Then it would make its way down pipes to a toilet tank in the home above Rohit's super low-flush vacuum toilet and on its way to an underground biodigester that would in turn produce cooking fuel for the kitchen and fertilizer for Sumit's rooftop garden design. A truly closed recycling system!
But we need a way to make the small scale agriculture even more efficient and cost-effective -- and applicable to villagers in the most remote and poorest areas too.
So we continue our journey westward to find Sakhiwe Shongwe, 14, and Bonkhe Mahlalela, 14, from Swaziland in southern Africa. Sakhiwe and Bonkhe will also be familiar to readers of our blog; like Sumit they were finalists in the Science in Action award, and, in fact they were the award winners.
They won their $50,000 prize for their project, "Unique Simplified Hydroponic Methods; Can The Method be Adapted for Poor Swazi Subsistence Farmers?".
Their innovative idea was to develop "a Unique Simplified Hydroponic Methods (USHM) (which concentrates on using available village waste materials) that will allow poor Swazi subsistence farmers to grow their crops and vegetables in very large quantities within limited space without using soil as growing medium."
Can't wait to see the friendships that develope there!
Wouldn't it be easier if we could walk through an interactive 3D model before trying to build anything in the real world? Raghavendra, we remember, has himself created a brilliant molecular model animation of the novel deoxygenation process he is working on -- what if we could see all of this in real 3D!?
Translated into English this says,"Optipan.com est un site internet ayant pour but d'aider des personnes vivant dans des régions pauvres ou éloignées et qui disposent de panneaux photovoltaïques en leur offrant un système qui permet d'orienter leurs panneaux photovoltaïques vers le soleil."
"Optipan.com is an internet site having as its aim the goal of helping people living in poor regions or in remote locations who want to use solar panels by offering them a way of orienting the photovoltaics toward the sun".
Where many students are using similar Ardunio based robotics to create revolving turrets to track targets and shoot things, Yassine has turned his skills toward a more wholesome and important target -- shooting for a clean energy future for all.
His system would make a valuable contribution to our eco-home demonstration and has implications not only for efficient photovoltaics but creating heliostats that can track the sun and concentrate it for water purification! Because even with a sophisticated understanding of the microbial treasures in water, we need to make sure that disease organisms do not infect the residents of our model eco-village, and concentrated sunlight is a great way to distill water and destroy germs.
But what happens when people do get sick?
It turns out that not far south from Yassine, another Google Science Fair finalist is also using low cost microcontroller circuits to solve problems. Catherine Wong, 16, from Morristown USA, who was also a Science in Action finalist, designed a cell-phone compatible, bluetooth enabled electrocardiograph (EKG) prototype that was capable of transmitting an EKG image over the cell phone network for remote examination. Her goal is to ensure that people experiencing poverty and often far from medical services can use their own already purchased phone technology to gather important data about their health and get it to professionals without incurring the costs and dangers of either docotor or patient having to travel. Her dream is to make things that work for those of us the least well off and in her references she cites one of my most influential and favorite works, "Design for the other 90%":
Chau, R. (2006). Design for the other 90%: Internet Village Motoman network. Retrieved October 5, 2010, from Smithsonian Institution website: http://other90.cooperhewitt.org/Design/internet-village-motoman-network
With Catherine's technology and java program on-hand at our eco-home demonstration we can site our best practice model away from city services and medical services and feel much more secure that we have a place that is safe to raise our children and take care of our elderly and loved ones.
So with this team of youthful superhero avengers on our side we are moving rapidly toward a world where we can take care of most existential issues ourselves, with low cost devices that we can often build ourselves, and visualize our environmental and personal health data ourselves and can telecommunicate with experts when necessary.
What we still need is a way to cut down on the costs of accessing experts, whether we are talking about doctors or environmental scientists or educators. As Marx pointed out in the labor value theory of capitalism, it is the cost of labor that really makes the economy work; the problem is that the poor often remain poor because they can't afford quality expertise. This is true for engineering and it is also true for education.
What is needed is a way to use inexpensive AI to help us advise, consult and teach. And this is what Martin Schneider, 14 from Dresher USA and Joshua Li, 14 from Ambler USA are doing with thier "Can You Beat Bob?" project.
Martin and Joshua have captured the spirit of the age -- the Zeitgeist, if you will -- and are keenly aware that "educational video games have emerged as a new medium for teaching core concepts and supplementing existing curriculum". What they bring to this emerging field is empirical evidence that a virtual competitor (who they named "Bob") could significantly increase the time fourth-graders in an elementary school engaged in productive math games.
With their help and their awareness that what they demonstrated through some rather good science can be applied to gaming that teaches science and history, we can go a step further in realizing what I've been calling "a sustainable development simulator" where people can turn their own homes and communities into sustainable development demonstrations by first "playing their way to success" in a gaming simulation and then taking the STEM skills they learn into the real world for application.
What often holds people back from reifying their desire to apply concept to the real world, however, is a feeling that they can't do it without an "expert" with them. By having virtual experts available tirelessly at all times to guide and motivate people learning real life skills we radically increase the likelihood that they will be able to use what they learn in a gaming or educational situation in their own lives.
Now while we are on the topic of the benefits of applied artificial intelligence, we come to the work of Brittany Wenger, 17, moving south from Martin and Joshua down to Lakewood Ranch, USA.
In effect what Brittany is doing is creating and training that "medical expert" that poor people and most of us couldn't afford to consult with for the early detection of Breast Cancer. Like Catherine, Brittany is keenly aware that the costs of health care exceed the ability of the afflicted to pay and with 1 out of every 8 women getting breast cancer urgent solutions are needed. Personally motivated by the suffering cancer caused in her own family she dedicated herself to making diagnosis faster, less invasive and cheaper as well as more effective.
In Brittany's experiments she developed a custom-crafted neural network in Java that could learn to recognize the difference between malignant and benign cancer samples obtained using a simple Fine Needle Aspirates (FNAs), the least invasive biopsy. She writes, "
By letting her "medical Bob" AI to do the prescreening, the need for doctors to do more invasive and expensive procedures can be diminished. And by opening up the learning to "the cloud" Brittany has been able to validate her approach with 7.6 million trials using existing dataset instances, showing the power of open-source data approaches and cloud computing to solve big problems. Unlike commercial products which lack certain capacities she says "the network has been published in the cloud, allowing for global submissions and benefit". And the benefits of opening things up to world are that her predictive success was 97.4% . With more samples we "may achieve perfection" she says and "maybe ready to diagnose actual patients."
Artificial neural networks detect patterns too complex to be recognized by humans and can be applied to breast mass malignancy classification when evaluating Fine Needle Aspirates (FNAs).
Once again, with this tool as part of our toolkit, the best practice model for sustainable living gets a step closer to being realized -- using Yassine's solar tracker to help provide the necessary electricity for running a computer and internet satellite connection (we brought such equipment to the remotest part of Nepal in our recent "last mile technology" expedition with Alton Byers and Chris Rainier) people can now access an artificial diagnostic expert from anywhere and at low or no cost, and in this case the AI is capable of things no human expert could do.
As we continue west on to Piano USA in the middle of the United States, we meet Kimberley Yu, 16, and Phillip Yu, 14. This brother sister team has taken on the challenge of finding a cure to Frontotemporal dementia (FTD), a fatal neurodegenerative disease akin to Alzheimer's that afflicts a quarter of a million Americans but currently has no effective treatments. Similar to Brittany, the Yu's passion for solving this problem comes from a sad personal experience - a devastating form of dementia affected their great grandfather in rural China. So once again we have young people inspired to solve problems on behalf of "the other 90%" with solutions that can be applied anywhere.
The Yus have done ground breaking original research that has opened up new avenues of study and treatment by actually identifying which specific proteins (FUS) and pathways (NF-kB) lead to the chronic inflammation that results in frontotemporal dementia. With their discoveries targeted drugs and therapies can now be developed that goes right to the source of the problem and corrects it rather than having to rely on a shotgun approach that is expensive, time consuming, filled with dangers of side effects and ultimately perhaps useless. In effect the Yus are creating a map for the pathways that lead to cellular abnormalities.
With such a team on our team we have in our problem solving community a couple of people who as young siblings were "always curious about science" and now know how to take issues that look to the experts like they have no solution and then work with the right methodology and insight to put their finger on the answer.
Moving on to San Diego we come to Jonah Kohn, 14 whose project "Good Vibrations" "combines science and music to try to help people. The goal of my device", he says, "is to improve the quality of life for people with hearing loss, especially severe hearing loss". Using the concept of "multi-frequency tactile sound" which he learned about through bone conduction of his guitar strings via his teeth, he went on to investigate "what haven't reseraches done?" and realized that current work on frequency discrimination has focused on speech which has a limited range. Noting that though cochlear implants have "eight to twenty four channels" they "don't help as much with music because the frequencies tend to be different than for speech" he worked on a device that could use sensory information from the fingers to compensate for information the ears couldn't distinguish. By dividing the sound spectrum into multiple frequency ranges and using vibrating speakers to apply those ranges through multiple contacts to a user's body, he was able to demonstrate that tone discrimination, pitch discrimination and volume hearing were all significantly improved (36 to 52 % ) among cochlear implant subjects under the age of 50 (after which tactile sensitivity diminishes dramatically). Interestingly, normal-range hearing subjects experienced almost no benefit from his device as the brain seems to ignore the redundant information coming in from other sensory organs.
As a musician I can attest to the importance of being able to perceive the richness of this artform in creating human well-being and couldn't imagine not being able to listen to music. For our sustainable living team to have somebody on board like Jonah who thinks not just about the needs of the "other 90%" but of that percentage of people suffering the deprivation of this important sense -- hearing -- gives us the chance for true equity and compassion for our fellows, a prerequisite for a sustainable civilization. What is more, the ability to break physical phenomena like music down into constituent frequencies and then create devices that can help different brains reconstitute that data into a whole from different sensory pathways has important implications for whole-brain holistic learning and multiple intelligences and works nicely with the 3D data visualization of Melvin with his spinning LED layers and the mapping of air pollutants by Alexey and Milena. They should find some great synergies discussing different forms of data visualization and how best to present information to our brains.
As we move up the coast to Los Gatos California we meet Sabera Talukder, 16, who was also a finalist in the Google Science in Action contest.
Sabera's "low cost solution to clean drinking water", "Pani Purification" (Pani is Hindi for water) adds another piece to the puzzle for providing best practice infrastructure for our model sustainable home and community. A Bengali-American teenager, she made a summer trip to her father's village in Bangladesh and came home determined to help solve the unfortunate water problems plaguing the people in the area.
While other girls her age were working on putting together the right accessories for their wardrobe, Sabera was working on putting together an effective solution to water contamination using Jute Bag and Copper Mesh fileters, solar battery powered UV lights and activated carbon. Simple but effective solutions like painting tubing white to reflect the UV light and increase its efficiency were implemented. Flow control via pressure sensitive valves conserved energy so that she could use a very small and inexpensive PV panel to trickle charge a normal car battery and get effective results.
Sabera's attention to the details of how to create a system that locals could build out of ubiquitous and cheap materials rather than expensive imports makes her system a nice addition to the others cited above. Her criteria should be in the handbook for every would-be engineer hoping to engage in development work:
The apparatus must be portable.
In addition to building and testing the prototype, she ran tests to prove the efficacy of the system, running separate and combined UVc and Activated Carbon treatments on known pathogens in the three major shape groups like Rhodospirillum rubrum (spiral shaped) , Bacillus subtilis (rod shaped) and Mircococcus luteus (sphere shaped).
With Sabera on our team we can much better protect the health of our families; combined with the know-how of Ivan, Marcos and Sergio we some powerful answers emerging to the question "how can we ensure that everybody has safe clean water to drink and use and return to our environment?"
The final stop on our journey West takes us to Tigard USA where we meet Yamini Naidu, 17.
Yamini's work synergizes nicely with that of Melvin and Raghavaendra. Where Melvin creates floating 3D images through light interference patterns and Rhaghavendra used 3D animation to model the deoxygenation reaction driven by sunlight that he is studying, Yamini creaed a "homology model of a human receptor protein using a computer modeling program". The goal?
To go "from models to medications: identification of medication leads for treating methamphetamine addiction".
It is all fine and good for us to try to pool all the talent we find at the Google Science Fair to create a best practice model eutopia that can provide clean, abundant energy, food and water and eliminate our wastes, and that allows us to monitor our health in youth and old age, visualize data so that we can end environmental threats and disease threats and ensure that all people can enjoy the benefits of life and music and art and civilization and the company of loved ones until the end of our days. But if we truly are going to make a better world, we also have to use today's tools to solve yesterdays self-inflicted problems, often born out of a deep dissatisfaction with the status quo.
Drug addiction is a terrible social problem that we can hope living in a sustainable community that is back in touch with nature and guided with intelligence will prevent. But what do we do with the millions of people who are already addicted? What about those who chose to drop out and now can't find their way back in?
Yamini's computational chemistry work toward a rational drug design approach helps us answer that question. She discovered two novel allosteric binding sites and "put her creativity to the test" to design novel chemical compounds (called YTN) to interact with those sites and displace METH. The TAAR1 receptor she has identified is also associated with Diabetes, Schizophrenia, Depression, Alzheimer's Disease and stroke, so there are promising synergies between Yamini and Kimberly and Philip Yu that we can anticipate. Meanwhile, her recognition of the potential for the TAAR1 to be used in the creation of a biosensor binding to toxic compound leading to "the devlopment of efficient methods to treat environmental pollution" that can be "done through in silico modeling analysis" gives her nice resonance with the environmental sensing work her fellow finalists are doing in the Ukraine and in Spain.
One can also hear her discussing the possibility for virtual screening of 3D homology models related to the receptors she is studying with Brittany, exploring how computer programs can do the jobs that human experts once did, but with greater speed and accuracy, and talking to Martin and Joshua about developing computer games that, rather than addicting kids, help kids get off of real drug addictions by coming up with virtual solutions during "in silico" experimentation that can be applied "in vivo".
Motivated by the loss of her uncle due to a stroke, and recognizing that Meth users also suffer strokes, she is hopeful that her research will also help provide insight "in the treatment of strokes whose etiology is still unknown". But when not engaged in her medical research, she trains in a form of classical Indian dance, using this skill and art "to help the community by participating in performances to help raise funds for various causes sponsored by local charitable and cultural organizations."
This desire to use art and music to help others creates a nice synergy with the goals of Jonah and indeed is a thread that binds all of these extraordinary young people, who are as multi-dimensional as one can imagine, reflecting not just good STEM education (Science Technology, Engineering and Math) but the right variant on what we call STEAM education (Science, Technology, Engineering ART and Math, or Science, Technology, Edutainment, Art and Music).
Yamini's personal statement seems to be applicable to all the contestants: "an aspiration to use science for the benefit of humanity, linking together... civic affairs with science innovation [with the] goal... to give back to the community because the community has given me so many oppportunities... asking not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country."
These are an incredible group of young people, and it will be fascinating to see how they interact and share ideas.
I can only hope that one day we, as a society, can provide more opportunities for these high caliber minds and hearts to come together and share their ideas and outlooks and ultimately put them into synergistic practice, creating an implementation space we can all turn to, lighting a path for the rest of us to get out of the darkness of environmental destruction, poverty and disease.
We hear the song that reminds us to believe that "the children are our future". Properly nurtured and supported and encouraged to work together, these children certainly are!