Mehaa Amirthalingam has an idea for a new toilet.
She wanted to help curb the amount of water Americans use, which could make a difference for the environment. Her idea: use recycled toilet water to reduce fresh water usage per flush.
“I have always been inspired by innovating and solving problems,” said the 14-year-old from Sugar Land, Texas.
She was one of 10 student finalists showing off their knowledge of science and innovation Monday on the 3M campus in Maplewood.
The 11th annual Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge is a two-day event including top finalists from across the country. The idea is to foster imagination through scientific thinking and to inspire a future generation of scientists and engineers.
Finalists from fifth to eighth grade worked over the summer with a mentor, provided by 3M, and created projects designed to impact real-world problems. These included a mobile phone case which charges the phone’s battery with every screen tap to potential treatments for Huntington’s Disease.
“These are the future scientists and we want to keep encouraging them to be curious,” said Nancy Sperling, a 3M event manager. “I think the best thing is that the kids have mentors for life.”
Sperling said the students will keep in touch with their mentors, who help them with college recommendation letters, other internship opportunities and additional competitions they can enter.
She said some former young scientists have gone on to file patents, present their designs at the White House and start nonprofits to continue the work they began with the 3M program.
More than 650 entries for the challenge were received nationwide in 2018, according to Sperling.
During the collaborative project portion of the challenge, each finalist received 20 minutes of instruction about a specific technology. The students were then partnered with another finalist, who received different technology training, and they worked on the solution together.
The purpose of the exercise is to see the finalists interact together and use their combined knowledge to solve a problem they may not have been able to solve alone, according to event organizers.
“We just gave them the basic information and let them go,” said Sam Reiss, a collaboration event mentor and a 3M senior product development engineer.
The problems were complex situations such as: What type of wearable tech would you create to effect virtual and augmented reality controls? Or, how do you maintain phone durability while allowing easy disassembly at the end of the product’s life for recycling? The partners discussed and presented to the event judges after only 60 minutes of collaboration together.
Finalists were judged on the presentations and understanding of the technologies. The scores will be added into each student’s overall score after the individual presentations on Tuesday
Amirthalingam designed a toilet flushing system which uses a combination of fresh and recycled water to cut down on the total amount of water used in a household.
“Giving water a second use, other than water that would just go down the drain … we’re using that water into something that is actually efficient,” Amirthalingam said.
Her mentor, Jen Hanson, a 3M advanced product development specialist, said she was impressed by Amirthalingam’s curiosity and hopes to continue mentoring her after the contest concludes.
“I’m inspired by their enthusiasm,” Hanson said. “They are doing a lot more in eighth grade than I was doing. I think all of (the mentors) are just blown away by how much progress these kiddos have made.”
Leo Wylonis, 14, from Berwyn, Pa., came up with an energy-efficient design for airplanes which would make the aircraft lighter and would also use less fuel.
“I’ve always been interested in airplanes,” Wylonis said. “I used to make wooden airplanes, powered by rubber bands, and I got one to fly for two minutes straight.”
Wylonis’s design is a new kind of polymer made from twisting and heating fishing line and made into a wing that can adjust in shape, but is equally as strong as a fixed wing.
Reiss, his mentor, said Leo’s ability to teach himself through the internet is a tool more kids are using today; he said he wishes he had this growing up.
“Leo built his own 3-D printer that he began using to print parts for his project,” Reiss said. “It’s technological fluency. I can use the internet, but the internet was not a native language to me growing up.”
Wylonis said the printer was put together from a kit, but it did take many weeks to assemble.
The grand prize winner of the challenge will receive $25,000, but each young scientist finalist will receive $1,000.
Individual presentations begin on Tuesday and winner of the contest will be announced Tuesday evening.