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Kid Inventors on Cutting Edge of Innovation

18 Jan 2016 by Susie Steckner

A self-purifying water bottle. An uber-fast cell phone charger. An electric car.

Think those inventions have been dreamed up in a well-financed, high-tech lab? Think again.

They are the creations of kid and teen inventors. Growing up in an age of advancing technology, Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) education, maker spaces and more, these young inventors are on the cutting edge of innovation.

They toil away in high school classrooms and family garages. They know how to leverage technology to bring their ideas to life. They seek out solutions to wide-ranging problems, whether helping to protect the environment or improving a flashlight.

They are propelled by issues around the globe and also close to home. And they are rewarded in ways big and small.

For Maryland teen Katherine Wu, the reward was personal: Creating a device to keep drowsy drivers alert on the road, a concern she experienced with her father on long road trips.

“I thought it was really cool to actually create a new device,” Wu says of the Driver's Companion.

Day for inventors

As many as 500,000 kids and teens invent gadgets and games each year, according to organizers of Kid Inventors' Day. The celebration of kid inventors, held annually on January 17, coincides with the birth date of Benjamin Franklin. As a young 12-year-old, Franklin created the first swim flippers.

For today’s young inventors, the goal is the same as Franklin’s then: Find a solution to a problem. And it’s never been a better time for kids and teens to do that.

Schools are focusing more and more on STEM programs, as well as tech-related career education courses like coding. Schools are also engaging kids with STEM-focused organizations like robotics clubs.

At the same time, the growing maker movement is drawing kids and teens with D.I.Y. and entrepreneurial dreams. Maker spaces and maker fairs are showing up at schools, libraries, community centers and beyond.

What’s more, corporations from Intel to Disney are offering big-money and big-recognition competitions for budding scientists and inventors. Some inventions bring college scholarships and visits with the President; others land kids on the news, YouTube and on popular TV shows like Ellen.

In the spotlight

A decade ago, a group of high school students from Phoenix took center stage for an invention that beat out MIT in a robotics competition. The story of four unlikely inventors —  Mexican immigrants from low-income circumstances — taking the prize from one of the nation’s top engineering schools drew media attention, donations for college scholarships, and book and movie deals.

Across the globe, kids and teens are grabbing headlines for inventions that pair tech with imagination and their own life experiences.

Wu dreamed up the Driver’s Companion after seeing her mother’s efforts to keep her father alert on the road during summer vacations. The user wears a mindwave mobile headset, which sends data about the driver’s brain waves — such as frequency of eye blinks — to a small device affixed to the car dashboard. As the driver becomes more drowsy, the device sends out visual and audio warning signals.

California teen Eesha Khare came up with a solution for a nagging problem that affects all cell phone users: charging the battery faster. Khare's device, a new supercapacitor, can charge a cell phone battery in 20 to 30 seconds.

New Jersey teen Yash Balaji zeroed in on water purification with his water bottle invention. UV LED lights kill harmful bacteria and create drinkable water. All the user does is hold the bottle. “It could be used where there are wars or natural disasters and no clean water is available,” Balaji says.

North Carolina teen Alexis Lewis holds patents for several inventions. She is driven by the desire to address global issues and also tweak technologies to serve people in need.

“I’ll get myself absolutely buried in a piece of physics, just learning about it obsessively,” she says of her young inventing career. “Then, I start to realize that there are little things that can be done to make technologies revolving around it a little bit more efficient here, a little bit more effective there.”

One of her innovations, a sled-like carrier with wheels, can be used by refugees to transport children for long distances to camps and hospitals. Another, an emergency mask pod, provides protective gear to people inside a smoke-filled building.

“Not only is it important to tell people that they can invent, but it’s important also to tell them that they should be (inventing), because they have their own unique perspective on the world,” Lewis says. “Everybody has lived a different life, everybody has seen the world slightly differently, and I think everybody has a slightly different take on each problem. And I think if we all work together, we can solve a tremendous number of problems.”