The editors of TIME for Kids spoke with seven incredible young innovators. They’re using STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) and their imaginations to invent new solutions to problems faced by people around the world.
In 2016, Erin Smith, then 16, watched old videos of Michael J. Fox. She recalls noticing that “when he laughed or smiled, it came off as emotionally distant.” The early symptom of Parkinson’s is called facial masking, and for a science-fair project, Smith chose to explore it. She filmed some 15 nursing-home residents as they watched Super Bowl commercials, then screened their expressions using off-the-shelf facial-recognition software. After seeing the results, the Michael J. Fox Foundation funded a more robust study with around 500 patients that led Smith to develop FacePrint, an AI tool that analyzes video footage for signs of Parkinson’s.
Now 19, Smith is studying neuroscience and computer science at Stanford University, and working with its medical school to get FacePrint to the point where it can diagnose Parkinson’s long before traditional tests are able to do so. —Shay Maunz
As a child growing up near the ocean in West Cork, Ireland, Fionn Ferreira loved the sea. He liked to go kayaking and would regularly volunteer at beach cleanups. He’s also loved science “since I can remember,” Ferreira, 19, told TIME. His two passions met when, in 2017, he began looking for an environmentally safe way to extract microplastics from water.
The method he discovered made him the winner of the 2019 Google Science Fair. It uses a magnetic liquid called ferrofluid which, when added to water, sticks to microplastics. Magnets can then be used to remove the ferrofluid from the water, along with more than 85% of microplastics, according to Ferreira.
Ferreira lived far from any labs, so he built most of the equipment he needed to test his method at home. There were hiccups along the way as he developed a spectrometer to measure microplastics in the water. “Some worked, some didn’t, some things blew up, some caught fire,” says Ferreira. “My parents weren’t very happy with me when the fuses of our house were constantly blowing.”
Now, Ferreira is a student at the University of Groningen, in the Netherlands. After graduation, he wants to continue his research and inspire greater interest in STEM. “The more people who have engaged in science generally, the more ideas we generate,” he says. —Karena Phan
Gitanjali Rao, 14, is already a seasoned inventor. In 2017, she won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge for a device called Tethys that uses carbon nanotube sensors to detect lead in drinking water. A year later, she won a prize in the TCS Ignite Innovation Student Challenge for inventing Epione, a tool that diagnoses early-stage prescription opioid addiction. “So many teens, especially my age, were starting to get addicted,” she says. Epione works by testing blood for increased protein production in a specific gene. Gitanjali’s latest brainchild is Kindly, an app that spots and prevents cyberbullying messages. Beta testing began last year.
In what remains of her spare time, Gitanjali enjoys teaching; her “innovation sessions” have attracted about 20,000 young people. “I want to work with students to find and develop their passion for STEM,” she says. —Jaime Joyce
Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz López
When she was 8, Xóchitl Guadalupe Cruz López lived in a home that was often without hot water. The same was true for many other residents of San Cristóbal de las Casas. “People here have to take baths with cold water. They have a lot of respiratory diseases,” she told TIME through an interpreter. “I wanted to do something.” So Xóchitl created Warm Bath, a solar-powered water heater made of easy-to-get recycled objects, including water bottles, plastic connectors and rubber hose. It costs about $30 to assemble.
Xóchitl made Warm Bath with the National Autonomous University of Mexico’s adopt-a-talent science program, PAUTA. In 2018, she was the first child to receive the university’s Institute of Nuclear Sciences’ Recognition for Women award. Now 11, Xóchitl plans to apply for a patent this year. —Constance Gibbs
Like many kids, Shubham Banerjee had a love for LEGO. But instead of building spaceships, he used the classic plastic bricks to address an issue that affects visually impaired people around the world: a lack of accessible braille printers.
Shubham was born in Hasselt, Belgium, and moved to California with his family when he was 4. At age 12, while contemplating science-fair topics, he was inspired by a flyer asking for donations for the blind. Shubham used the materials in his LEGO Mindstorms EV3 robotics kit to create the first open-source, portable braille printer.
After winning first prize in the science fair, Shubham founded Braigo Labs Inc. with his parents. A more advanced, non-LEGO prototype for the printer followed later that year, in collaboration with Intel Capital and other investors. At $350, Shubham’s design would be about five times more affordable than the standard industry printer.
Now 18, Banerjee is a freshman at the University of California, Berkeley. He’s focused on his studies in Business and Engineering. “Right now, I’m on the studious grind,” he says. The final Braigo product is still to come, in one form or another—Shubham holds the patents to the printer and is considering his options for moving the company forward. —Ellen Nam
Neil Deshmukh’s introduction to AI came three years ago. In a ploy to keep his little brother out of his room and away from his Nintendo DS, at age 14 Neil built a device that could recognize the difference between his face and his brother’s and would unlock the door accordingly. “In the very beginning, I was a tinkerer,” he told TIME.
Now 17, Neil lives in Macungie, Pennsylvania, and has created two apps. He is the founder of PlantumAI, which uses crowdsourced data to assist farmers around the globe with detecting and diagnosing variations of crop disease. He also cofounded VocalEyes, at MIT Launch. This app helps people who are blind or have low-vision to “see” by audibly describing photographs shot on a smartphone. Both of the problems Neil chose to tackle are personal. He witnessed the devastation of crop disease firsthand on a visit to the Indian village near where his parents were born, and his grandmother has low-vision, so he set out to create VocalEyes with her in mind.
Neil’s work has won international and country-wide contests, including ones held by companies such as Google, T-Mobile, and General Motors. He advocates for increased human involvement in AI. “AI can’t replace fundamental human contact,” Neil says. “I like to put power in the hands of the users themselves.” —Rebecca Katzman
When she was 14, Riya Karumanchi met a woman who used a white cane to navigate. Riya was surprised that even with the cane, the woman struggled to get around. As a tech-obsessed teenager, she assumed the cane came loaded with cutting-edge technology. “It’s just a stick,” Riya says. “My initial thought was like, What? How is nobody working on this?” So she engineered a device now called SmartCane. This stick can sense wet surfaces and other obstacles, vibrating to alert the user to treacherous situations. GPS navigation gives directions using patterned vibration and audio. An emergency button acts as a lifeline to emergency responders or loved ones.
Riya is now 16, the SmartCane team numbers three, and the effort has more than $83,000 in funding. The team’s hope is to one day distribute the product through the Canadian National Institute for the Blind. —Shay Maunz
TIME’s Davos 2020 issue was produced in partnership with the World Economic Forum.