Article courtesy of Mike Cassidy | August 4, 2013 | Mercury News | Shared as educational material only
Above photo: Sabera Talukder, 16, of Los Gatos presents her clean water science project:(Lauren Purkey )
Here’s what a successful scientist looks like: Sabera Talukder is standing in an elegantly lighted hall at Google (GOOG), surrounded by peers from around the world, explaining how she designed a low-cost system to clean drinking water in developing countries.
One other thing: Talukder is a 16-year-old Los Gatos High School student.
“I had done it to really help people,” Talukder says of her year-long project inspired by a trip to Bangladesh that led to her Pani (“water” in Bengali) Purification system. Talukder was one of 15 finalists last week in the Google Science Fair. The room was filled with answers to difficult questions: how to increase yields for subsistence farmers; how to help the hearing impaired enjoy music; how to tackle meth addiction; and on and on — brilliant schemes by even more brilliant high school students from Swaziland, Ukraine, India, Malta, Spain, Canada, and the United States.
But I’d come in search of the answer to a different question: How do we get more kids more interested in science, technology, engineering and math? It’s a question that has caused hand-wringing for years. The United States, the worry goes, is falling behind in training students to work the jobs of tomorrow — and today for that matter.
No doubt there is more than one answer and I’ll explore some possibilities in this and future columns.
Certainly companies like Google, which will benefit from a better prepared workforce, have a role to play and its new science fair, like those hosted by Intel (INTC), Synopsis and others, is a good step. Sure a kid could be motivated to participate by the fair’s substantial prizes. Among them are $50,000 and $25,000 scholarships; a trip to the Galapagos archipelago aboard National Geographic’s Endeavour; internships at Google’s Zurich research site, the Fermi and CERN particle research labs and Lego’s headquarters and factory in Denmark; a classroom set of Google Chromebooks for schools back home and mentoring from Scientific American magazine staffers. (National Geographic, CERN, Lego and Scientific American are the fair’s co-sponsors.)
But when I asked Talukder what pushed her to submit her project, she didn’t mention any of the contest’s awards. Instead, she talked about a trip last summer to Bangladesh, where her father grew up, and how she seized on problems caused by poor water quality there. She talked about a father she met. His children were violently ill, presumably from drinking impure water. He’d heard about her interest in water. Could she test his family’s supply? Could she tell him whether water was making his family sick?
Talukder told me she didn’t need to test it. She already knew. “It’s all practically the same,” she says of areas of the country with bacteria and parasite-laden water. Instead, she vowed to come up with an affordable system to purify it.
“And if it doesn’t fix it,” she says she told herself, “then I’m going to go back and try and fix it again.”
Talukder came up with a solar-powered system that relies on filters, UV light and activated charcoal. She plans to deploy a few in Bangladesh this winter and will offer her design for free on the Web in the spirit of open-source design. It’s a terrific story, but Talukder knows that she had a lot going for her when it came to being encouraged to dig into science. Her father, an electrical engineer, and her mother, an architect, always encouraged her and her sister to seek their own answers to their own tough questions. She attends a top-notch school and lives in an affluent town.
“I am very fortunate to be living in Los Gatos,” she says. “And so I think to not help people, with what I’ve been given, would just be a crime.”
And so what about kids on the fringes, kids who might not be getting nudged toward science, technology, engineering and math? How do we reach them? It turns out Talukder has some ideas about that, too. She’s in touch with teachers at her elementary and middle schools. She’d like a chance to tell them that science and math are cool, says her father, Shah Talukder. She’d like to tell them that the disciplines are a means to an end that can go far beyond academic achievement. That’s one way that kids who aren’t thinking about science and the good it can do can be inspired.
“Not just her,” Shah Talukder says, “but all of these kids. If they go back to the community, go back to the schools and explain what they’re doing. Kids listen to kids.”
And in fact, that’s one thing Google is banking on, says Vint Cerf, Google’s chief Internet evangelist and one of the science fair judges. Cerf, who was a key player in developing the Internet, says the Web has the power to link these brilliant kids with other kids.
“We want other kids to know that their contemporaries can accomplish these things,” he says.
Think about it. Just maybe a kid armed with that knowledge will find a way to unleash his or her own scientific brilliance. A brilliance that without a friendly shove never would have been unleashed.
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