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Young scientists compete at regional finals

By Hank Sims Daily Planet Staff
Monday November 05, 2001

It may not have had the draw of the California Bears football game on the other side of the campus, but for the cognoscenti, the regional finals of the Third Annual Siemens-Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition, held Saturday in the Pauley Ballroom, was an eight-way battle royale to savor. 

The only problem: who to root for? The competitors, the crème de la crème of the youth science scene west of the Rockies, had each spent years honing their projects, and only a soothsayer could tell whose work would end up having the greatest impact. 

How to compare Yanjia Zhang’s (Arcadia, Calif.) work on hematological stem cells with Anna Lonyai’s (Roland Heights, Calif.) revisions to the standard model of the upper-atmospheric ozone depletion? Or Theresa Barens’ (Scottsdale, Ariz.) discoveries in brain oncology with the innovate, low-cost hearing aid designed by Gabe Klapman (Santa Cruz) and Peter Lee (Carmel)? 

In the end, engineering trumped pure science on Saturday, with the awards for group and individual projects each going to high-tech tinkerers. 

Ryan Patterson of Grand Junction, Colo., took the honors in the individual category for his automated sign language interpreter. The design of the product was simplicity itself, though its engineering - which involved arrays of sensors and complex circuitry - was all but incomprehensible. 

Users of the Patterson interpreter, which is intended as a low-cost means for people who speak only sign language to communicate with non-speakers, slip on a specially outfitted glove, then hand a small LCD screen to the non-speaker. As the person signs with the gloved hand, the device automatically translates the language into written words, which appear on the screen. 

Patterson said that he got the idea after he saw two people, one deaf and the other sign-language illiterate, attempting to communicate in a restaurant. Later that same week, he read a story in a newspaper about schools hiring interpreters for deaf students. 

“These students don’t have a lot of privacy, because the interpreter has to go everywhere with them.” Patterson said. “Plus, this just seemed a more cost-effective method.” 

Patterson also wrote the software with which users of the interpreter “train” it to recognize their own particular signing styles. 

In the group category, sisters Hanna and Heather Craig of Anchorage, Alaska won with their ice-sled rescue robot, which they hope will some day be used to save people who fall through thin ice. 

The robot fills an important gap in the rescue technology, according to Hanna Craig. 

“When we researched this, we found out that there were specialized rescue robots designed for fires and for earthquakes,” she said. “But nothing for ice.” 

With the robot, rescuers will be able to reach victims of ice-catastrophes from a safe distance. An operator may pilot the device out to a floating person by means of a remote control and an on-board camera. The victim can grab the robot, and the rescuer can pull the person to safety by means of a tether carried by the robot. 

Fellow Alaskans Crystal Gefroh, Crystal Keaster and Heidi Eckman of Delta Junction impressed science fans with their three-year experiment involving lichen, cosmic radiation and the space shuttle. 

Several years ago, the team persuaded NASA to carry vials of lichen into orbit, so that they could determine the effect of cosmic rays on living organisms. After returning to Earth, the samples were compared with lichen they had kept in Alaska. 

The results were unfortunately inconclusive, but the experiment had twice taken them to Florida, first to watch their samples blast off and then to discuss the results with NASA scientists. 

The winners of the western regionals took home $3,000 in scholarship prizes, and will compete in the national finals in December.