NEW YORK CITY—The Google Science Fair is a bit different from the science fairs of yesteryear. For one thing, it's open to students around the world, whose entries will be submitted online as videos or slide shows. And the prizes are a tad snazzier than a blue ribbon.
Scientific American, along with Lego, National Geographic and CERN, the European lab for particle physics, is a partner in the science fair, which kicked off with a launch event at Google's offices here on January 11. The winner of the contest, which is open to entrants age 13 to 18, will receive, among other goodies, a $50,000 scholarship, a 10-day trip to the Galápagos Islands (where Charles Darwin did some of his most important fieldwork) and a virtual internship at Lego or a three-day site visit to CERN, Google or Scientific American.
"Kids can be just terrific at doing science," said Mariette DiChristina, Scientific American's editor in chief, who served as emcee for the launch event and is one of the contest's judges. Young people ask great questions, offer fresh viewpoints, and bring "energy to learn, a passion to learn and a drive to learn," DiChristina said. "What if we harnessed that kid power to tackle our problems as a nation and around the globe?"
Two of the featured speakers testified to doing just that. William Kamkwamba spoke of building a windmill from scrap parts as a teenager to provide power to his family's home in Malawi. After financial problems forced him to drop out of high school, Kamkwamba borrowed textbooks from a local library and constructed windmills using old tractor and bicycle parts. He even built a circuit breaker to protect the house, made of grass, from electrical fires. Kamkwamba co-authored a 2009 book about his work, The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind, and now teaches children back home how to build their own windmills.
Artificial-intelligence (AI) buff Tesca Fitzgerald of Oregon, who is already enrolled in college even though she does not graduate from high school until June, showed off her entry in the science fair. Fitzgerald's project investigated how autonomous robots could help ease nurses' workload in hospitals. Citing statistics about a shortage of nurses, and about the disproportionate amount of time nurses spend transporting patient items, Fitzgerald presented a modification to a robotic pathfinding algorithm to help patient-serving robots better reach their destinations. It was competing in science fairs, she said, that brought out her passion for AI.
Entries to the science fair can be submitted until April 4. After multiple rounds of judging to winnow the field down to semifinalists and then finalists, the winner of the contest—and all the prizes that entails—will be announced in July.
Google Science Fair logo in Legos: Angela Cesaro/Scientific American