Teen stitches up a Broadcom win

A ninth-grader who studied the strength of seams takes top honors in national middle-school research contest

Holly Jackson, 14, of San Jose, Calif. (left) and Sahar Khashayar, 14, of Laguna Niguel, Calif., won the top two awards at the 2014 Broadcom MASTERS competition. Holly claimed an award of $25,000, and Sahar earned second prize of $10,000.

Patrick Thornton/ SSP

WASHINGTON — Holly Jackson loves to sew. This week she zig-zagged her way through a three-day ensemble of science, engineering and math challenges. By the end, she had stitched up top prize — an educational award of $25,000.

The 14-year-old from San Jose, Calif., claimed the honor at a gala awards ceremony on October 28. “I was so surprised,” Holly said of her win. “The other finalists had so many great projects.”

She was one of 30 finalists from 13 states who came to Washington, D.C., for the fourth annual Broadcom MASTERS competition. (MASTERS stands for Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars.) This program was created by Society for Science & the Public (which publishes Science News for Students). The Samueli Foundation, a non-profit organization created by Broadcom founder Henry Samueli, provided Holly’s winnings. Another nine finalists took home major cash awards or funding to attend the science camp of their choice.

Students qualified to take part on the basis of a middle-school science fair project. But Broadcom MASTERS is not a science fair. Those qualifying projects accounted for only about one-fourth of a finalist’s eventual score.

Holly’s research project, aptly named “Sewing Science,” analyzed the strength and best uses for various types of sewing stitches. She used nylon or polyester thread to sew together 120 samples of cotton, denim and nylon fabric. Then she stressed the seams she’d sewn by pulling on them. Using a bathroom scale, she measured the force needed to break the stitches. Results of the tests were surprising, she says: “The strongest stitch, on average, was a simple, straight stitch.” Holly’s findings could be of interest to everyone from fashion designers to parachute manufacturers.

Holly’s project “is a great example of how science is applicable in our everyday lives,” said Maya Ajmera. She’s the president of Society for Science & the Public.

The largest portion of Holly’s winning score came from her performance in a series of science challenges. Even before arriving in Washington, she and the other finalists had been grouped into five-member teams. For two days of the competition, each team designed, built and tested everything from roller coasters to carbonation-powered rockets. Other challenges included analyzing rocks and minerals and scrutinizing replicas of fossil skulls at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History.

Yet for many finalists, the highlight of their trip may not have involved any science at all. Tuesday, the students got to meet with President Barack Obama at the White House.

Altogether, the finalists competed for more than $75,000 in awards. The 2014 finalists had been winnowed down from 300 semifinalists. More than 2,000 applicants entered the competition. They came from 46 states, Washington, D.C., and Puerto Rico. This year’s finalists included 12 girls and 18 boys. Seven came from California. Florida was home to another five.

Other award winners . . .

Sahar Khashayar of Laguna Niguel, Calif, came in second place in the competition. This earned the 14-year-old the Marconi/Samueli Award for Innovation. The prize also includes a cash award of $10,000. For her qualifying project, Sahar designed, built and tested a device that looks for signs of a wildfire.

Her sensor packages scouted for three things: heat, smoke and infrared radiation. These warning signs don’t always show up at the same time during a wildfire, she explained. That’s why her device needs to measure all three. When one of those signs is detected, her invention sends a warning message to a smartphone.

Her device costs about $60 to build. Deploying a network of such fire detectors, especially in areas battling drought, could help prevent or reduce the loss of life and property, she says.

Eight other finalists earned first- or second-place awards (worth $3,500 and $2,500 respectively) in four areas: science, technology, engineering and mathematics. Collectively, these fields are abbreviated as STEM. These eight awards will help cover the costs of attending a STEM-oriented camp of each winner’s choosing. All STEM winners also took home an iPad.

STEM awards for science

First place: James Roney, 14, Santa Barbara, Calif. James studied whether ants use the chemical trails they deposit to communicate with each other about how good  the food is that they’ve found.

Second place: Daniel Bruce, 14, San Diego, Calif. Daniel investigated whether and how the behavior of birds is affected by the presence of people nearby.

STEM awards for technology

First place: Aditya Jain, 14, Portland, Ore. Aditya developed a method to enhance the quality of images from computerized tomography (CT) scans. His goal was to improve the chances of detecting lung cancers and other lesions.

Second place: Nikhil Behari, 14, Sewickley, Pa. He developed a way to improve the security of typed passwords. Nikhil’s new computer technique attempts to match the timing and pressure of keystrokes, as well as the characters that had been typed in.

STEM awards for engineering

First place: Chythanya Murali, 13, Little Rock, Ark. She studied how certain combinations of enzymes and bacteria might team up to provide an ecofriendly way to clean up oil spills.

Second place: Annika Urban, 13, Pittsburgh, Pa. Annika developed a device that can record heart and lung sounds on an iPad or other electronic tablet or a smartphone.

STEM awards for mathematics

First place: Rajiv Movva, 14, San Jose, Calif. He tested the ability of plant compounds known as flavonoids to interfere with the ability of an enzyme to break down starches. In the body, that enzyme would break down foods to release sugar (energy) into the blood. Rajiv’s goal was to see if flavonoids might help prevent spikes in blood sugar after people with type-2 diabetes had eaten a meal.

Second place: Jonathan Okasinski, 12, Harleysville, Pa., who designed electronic equipment that could detect a type of interaction between subatomic particles known as quantum entanglement.

Star collaborators

Two finalists earned Rising Star Awards for embracing the spirit of cooperation during team challenges. Annie Ostojic, 12, of Munster, Ind., studied how evenly food cooked, based on where it had been placed in a microwave oven. Then, she designed a container for use in microwave ovens that steams the food inside them. This cuts the food’s cooking time. Raghav Ganesh, 12, of San Jose, Calif., designed a sensor package that can be clipped onto a blind person’s cane to help detect knee-high objects and other trip hazards well beyond the cane’s reach.

Annie and Raghav each earned trips to the May 2015 Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF), in Pittsburgh. The world’s largest international high school science fair, Intel ISEF is another Society for Science & the Public competition.

Paula Golden is the executive director of the Broadcom Foundation, based in Irvine, Calif. “Congratulations to Holly, Sahar and the entire Broadcom MASTERS class of 2014,” she said. Their “STEM skills and collaborative team spirit represent the critical array of diversified talent needed to innovate solutions to the world’s grand challenges.”

Power words

bacterium (plural bacteria)  A single-celled organism. These dwell nearly everywhere on Earth, from the bottom of the sea to inside animals.

cancer  Any of more than 100 different diseases, each characterized by the rapid, uncontrolled growth of abnormal cells. The development and growth of cancers, also known as malignancies, can lead to tumors, pain and death.

chemical      A substance formed from two or more atoms that unite (become bonded together) in a fixed proportion and structure. For example, water is a chemical made of two hydrogen atoms bonded to one oxygen atom. Its chemical symbol is H2O.

computerized axial tomography  (CAT or CT, for short). A special kind of x-ray scanning technology that produces cross-sectional views of the inside of a bone or body.

diabetes  A disease where the body either makes too little of the hormone insulin (known as type 1 disease) or ignores the presence of too much insulin when it is present (known as type 2 diabetes).

enzymes   Molecules made by living things to speed up chemical reactions.

flavonoids A group of yellowish compounds produced by plants. Many of these chemicals are antioxidants, meaning they can fight cellular damage from oxidation — often resulting in heart-healthy benefits.

fossil  Any preserved remains or traces of ancient life. There are many different types of fossils: The bones and other body parts of dinosaurs are called “body fossils.” Things like footprints are called “trace fossils.” Even specimens of dinosaur poop are fossils.

infrared light  A type of electromagnetic radiation invisible to the human eye. The name incorporates a Latin term and means “below red.” Infrared light has wavelengths longer than those visible to humans. Other invisible wavelengths include X rays, radio waves and microwaves. It tends to record a hit signature of an object or environment.

mineral  The crystal-forming substances, such as quartz, apatite, or various carbonates, that make up rock. Most rocks contain several different minerals mish-mashed together. A mineral usually is solid and stable at room temperatures and has a specific formula, or recipe (with atoms occurring in certain proportions) and a specific crystalline structure (meaning that its atoms are organized in certain regular three-dimensional patterns). (in physiology) The same chemicals that are needed by the body to make and feed tissues to maintain health.

particle  A minute amount of something.

quantum entanglement  A physical phenomenon that occurs when groups of particles (typically pairs) interact in ways such that all the particles have the same quantum state.

quantum theory  A way to describe the operation of matter and energy at the level of atoms. It is based on an interpretation that at this scale, energy and matter can be thought to behave as both particles and waves. The idea is that on this very tiny scale, matter and energy are made up of what scientists refer to as quanta — miniscule amounts of electromagnetic energy.

quantum physics  A branch of physics that uses quantum theory to explain or predict how a physical system will operate on the scale of atoms or sub-atomic particles.

radiation  Energy, emitted by a source, that travels through space in waves or as moving subatomic particles. Examples include visible light, infrared energy and microwaves.

sensor  A device that picks up information on physical or chemical conditions — such as temperature, barometric pressure, salinity, humidity, pH, light intensity or radiation — and stores or broadcasts that information. Scientists and engineers often rely on sensors to inform them of conditions that may change over time or that exist far from where a researcher can measure them directly.

smartphone  A cell (or mobile) phone that can perform a host of functions, including search for information on the Internet.

STEM  An acronym (abbreviation made using the first letters of a term) for science, technology, engineering and math.

subatomic  Anything smaller than an atom, which is the smallest bit of matter that has all the properties of whatever chemical element it is (like hydrogen, iron or calcium).

ultrasound    Sounds at frequencies above the range that can be detected by the human ear. (adj. ultrasonic)