Few things restore faith in humanity better than science fairs that showcase the brilliant kids who will (hopefully) shepherd us into a better future. The four year-old Google Science Fair, the biggest science fair in the world, has plenty of those kids to go around.
Earlier this week, I visited the finalist showcase event to chat with some of the kids, all between ages 13 and 18, who competed for a $50,000 scholarship and other assorted prizes. These were some of the best projects on display.
A trio of Irish 16-year-olds came up with this project, which took the grand prize in the competition. After extensive tests, the students discovered that two naturally-growing strains of Rhizobium bacteria–which have a symbiotic relationship with legumes–speed up the germination process of barley and oats by 50%, and increase crop yield by an average of 30%.
“It’s a natural nitrogen-fixing bacteria. We used it on plants that it isn’t usually associated with,” explains Émer Hickey, one of the team members. Hickey, along with teammates Sophie Healy-Thow and Ciara Judge, analyzed over 9,500 seed samples and took 120,000 measurements over 11 months in both small- and large-scale field trials, ultimately finding that Rhizobium bacteria can dramatically speed up germination of cereal crops.
The teammates were inspired to do the project upon learning about the East African food crisis a few years ago in school. Around the same time, Hickey’s mother found nodules in the roots of a pea plant while gardening. Upon asking her science teacher what the nodules were, Hickey learned that they contained Rhizobium bacteria. The experiment was born.
In their science fair entry, the team members posit that the discovery could allow farmers to quickly plant crops in times of changeable weather. ” Once the germination stage passes seedlings are more robust and not impacted as significantly by disease and ground conditions. Improvements that increase yield (such as more ears per stalk), or allow early season sowing in cooler climates would be of notable benefit,” they write.
Post-competition, the high schoolers plan to continue refining their project and doing more large-scale trials. “We want to change the world. We want to commercialize this,” says Hickey.
Guillame Rolland, a 17-year-old student from France, was inspired by his father–the head of a nursing home–to create his science fair entry: a 3-D printed alarm clock that emits scents instead of an auditory alarm when it’s time to wake up.
To make it work, users put one drop per day of their chosen essential oil into a capsule inserted into the clock. When it’s morning, a fan directs the scent out of the clock and onto the user. After testing the clock with two dozen volunteers (including five people in a nursing home and a number of teenagers), Rolland found that the clock can wake users up in 30 seconds to one minute.
And the smells that he has come up with in a lab, including coffee, chocolate, and wood, are surprisingly pleasant.
While the clock was initially designed for people with sensory disabilities, Rolland also sees a future for his clock in the general population of people who would rather be woken up by the smell of coffee than by a blaring alarm.
After the science fair, Rolland hopes to build a final prototype and find a distributor for his clock.
When 14-year-old Trisha Prabhu came home from school one day and saw a CNN report on a girl who jumped to her death off a water tower after being cyberbullied, she decided to take a stand.
Prabhu, who lives outside Chicago, came up with Rethink: a piece of software that warns kids when they are about to post something online that might be hurtful to others. A coder since age 10, Prabhu tested her system by presenting teens with hurtful online messages and giving them the option to post them. When they were given a second chance to rethink their post with an alert telling them that they were about to post something hurtful, most did.
Some 71% of test subjects were initially willing to post a hurtful message, like “I hate you.” That number went down to 4% when they were given a chance to rethink their message.
Now Prabhu is integrating her system into a mobile app extension, and trying to beef up her algorithms so that they are more context-sensitive (so that kids don’t get a Rethink alert if they type “I hate Chicago,” for example). Ultimately, she wants her software to be adaptable to all current and future social media platforms.
“I want to end cyberbullying,” she says.