There’s a renewed fervor among education advocates to encourage more students to enter the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). Entire economies depend largely on industries that increasingly are in dire need of talent in these very areas.
One major hurdle is that many youngsters also tend to see these fields of study as the most intimidating. Besides their inherent reputation as “hard subjects,” there’s the widely-held assumption that it takes several years of incubation, involving dedicated learning and training, before talent and ingenuity translates into making an actual impact.
Even wunderkind inventor and science advocate Taylor Wilson, who at 14, momentarily became the youngest person to fuse the atom, told told National Geographic magazine that he had previously thought such achievements were “out of reach” since they’re generally considered “the domain of only the big labs and researchers with big budgets and advanced degrees.”
While Wilson has certainly gone above and beyond to show why that isn’t necessarily the case, a number of young upstarts are also quickly proving that, sometimes, all it takes is diving right in. Here’s a list to name a few:
1. The brilliant whiz kid that Uncle Sam really, really wants
Taylor Wilson’s budding career as a nuclear scientist serves as an exemplary argument for why prodigious minds can be a nation’s most precious resource. Besides becoming the youngest person, at the time, to fashion a working nuclear fusion reactor, the Arkansas native is field testing a low-cost counterterrorism system that detects radioactive material while also working on a portable device that produces radioactive isotopes for the treatment and detection of cancer. Along the way, he’s given two TED talks, inspiring more precocious youth to follow suit.
It all began, as is often the case, as an exercise in persistent tinkering. Using the money he saved from Christmas and birthdays, Wilson compiled the necessary components for a fusion reactor through vendor sites like eBay and went as far as taking trips out to the New Mexico desert to collect uranium ore. Aided by a series of open-source blueprints posted online, he then meticulously began assembling the parts in his parent’s garage. And it worked — luckily.
Now 20, he’s left school to work independently, having already turned down a lucrative job offer from Raytheon, the nation’s fifth largest defense contractor and funding from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security and the U.S. Department of Energy, though the agencies are undoubtedly keen on keeping a close eye on his progress.
2. This high schooler’s flashlight is powered simply by your touch
Ann Makosinski’s flashlight, though made of much simpler of parts, has the potential to make a huge difference for the one billion of the earth’s inhabitants who don’t have access to electricity. Simply pick it up and the excess bodily energy that radiates from within is enough to shine a path.
The idea came about as the 16-year-old Canadian was thinking of ways to help a friend in the Philippines who was having hard time studying whenever it got dark. Rather than relying on batteries, Makosinski’s invention powers a low-wattage LED using Peltier tiles built into the device’s hollow casing. Peltier tiles have the special ability to convert thermoelectric energy into usable electricity in conditions where the temperature differential between the two sides is 5 degrees Celsius. As such, flashlight tends to shine brighter as the outside air gets colder. In warmer environments, the hollowed flashlight still produced a strong beam of light that lasted more than 20 minutes.
Makosinski’s patent-pending invention, an entry into the 2013 Google science fair, was awarded the top prize in her age group, which included a $25,000 scholarship.
3. The teen who may someday bring your sapped cell phone back to life in less than 30 seconds
Despite your best efforts to avoid those dreaded instances when a cell phone runs out of power just when you need it most, it’s bound to happen. And when it happened to Eesha Khare, she was a high school student, away from home, without an outlet within sight and desperately needing to contact her parents.
She, however, decided to do something about it. Her invention, a type of supercapacitor, is designed to provide an immediate boost whenever battery power dwindles down, and may someday be scaled to fit inside consumer goods like cell phones and electric cars. Now supercapacitor technology, which allows for rapid charging and discharging, as well as more charging cycles, isn’t anything new. The problem has long been that, compared to lithium batteries, capacitor systems have a much lower energy density, 10 times lower in fact.
Though Khare’s admits that her latest electrochemical prototype doesn’t yet possess the amount of energy density needed for the rigors of day-to-day use, likely practical applications for the technology include using it a backup or emergency power source. The project came in second place at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, where she was awarded $50,000 in prize money.
4. The budding entrepreneur who made it okay to skip showers
Ludwick Marishane has figured out a clever way to go through long stretches without showering — and still keep clean.
Prior to enrolling at the University of Cape Town, the South African native lived in a poor rural African community that lacked hot water. As such, locals often dreaded having to wash up and frequent complaints from friends inspired him to spend six months digging around the Internet to identify which ingredients, when mixed together and slathered on, may work as a hassle-free alternative.
The formulation that the 22-year-old entrepreneur eventually settled on is comprised of a proprietary blend of “biocide, bioflavonoids and moisturizers.” And unlike alcohol based sanitizers, Marishane’s rinse-free and anti-bacterial Drybath gel is odorless and biodegradable.
Besides those living in remote villages, the product is particularly well-suited for passengers on long flights. Packets of 10 can be purchased starting at $39 though Headboy industries’ Web site.
5. A design apprentice who eats his water bottles
Earlier this year, design student Rodrigo García González and his team from Imperial College London made a splash with a video that showed them taking a refreshing sip from drinks served in sturdy, gelatinous containers. They wanted to demonstrate how, if we all swallowed the idea of an edible bottle, it can go a long toward reducing dramatically the 33 million tons of plastic waste that ends up in sitting landfills or polluting the world’s ocean annually.
González’s clear and smoothly-textured Ooho water bottles were created using spherification, a culinary technique developed to make fake caviar. Balls of liquid are first frozen and dipped into calcium chloride solution. Later, it’s dipped in a brown algae extract that coats the initial layer in a reinforcing gel that thickens over time.
It’s a promising concept, though there are some obvious challenges that need to be worked out. They’ll likely have to come up with a way to make the bottle re-sealable while keeping the “tasteless” skin sanitary enough for consumers to eat. González is currently testing a “double container” system that packs several individual Oohos into a bigger Ooho container, which makes for a thicker and more resistant membrane.
6. The undergrad that can stop bleeding instantly
By design, bandages can only minimize bleeding while the natural clotting process kicks in. There are, though, more advanced emergency treatments like QuikClot gauzes, which speed up the healing process with the help of a special mineral that forces platelets to form a clot much quicker.
Joe Landolina, a New York University undergraduate, may have done the medical establishment one better. His invention, VETI-GEL, which comes in a convenient tube, stops bleeding instantly and without the need to apply pressure.
The gel, comprised of plant polymers, is essentially a synthesized version of extracellular matrix, a naturally-occurring substance found inside connective animal tissue. ECM provides structural support to cells and is also responsible for activating the production of fibrin, the proteins that come together to form blood clots. When tested on wounds, a chain reaction takes place that, he claims, allows even the most severe burns to heal up as quickly as the next day.
Landolina’s Brooklyn-based startup, Suneris, is currently marketing VETI-GEL to veterinarians. They’re also looking into obtaining FDA approval for topical use in humans.
7. The kid with a sweet way to cure a bad case of the hiccups
For simple problems such as the hiccups, a simple Google search will turn up several suggested folk remedies scattered across numerous message boards. Mallory Kievman has tried them. And though only 11 at the time, she also went the extra step of rummaging through volumes of medical literature in search of something that was shown scientifically to work.
Two years later, Kievman has a concoction that she says calms the hiccup reflex by acting on the nerves in the mouth and throat that triggers the reaction. As she explained on her Web page, “When those nerves are over-stimulated, the message from your brain to hiccup is canceled.” Best of all, her award-winning remedy — a blend of apple cider vinegar, acids and sugar — is conveniently being sold as a lollipop.
The 15-year-old CEO, with help from a team of Harvard MBAs, has Hiccupops on track for mass production, with the first shipments slated for October. Batches of six can be pre-ordered through the product’s Web site starting at $6.99.