Right at the moment when it seems like everything is going to hell in a handbasket, a hopeful ray of light appears. Time to meet some incredibly smart students whose clever inventions could transform our lives.
Today, students from around the country received a total of $90,000 in prizes from the Lemelson-MIT program, which celebrates outstanding young inventors.
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The program started in 1994 and has evolved since. This year, prizes were awarded to tech-based inventions that improve health care, transportation, food and agriculture, and consumer devices.
Out of all the winners, one of my favorites is SignAloud, a pair of gloves to make communication easier for people who have difficulty speaking. University of Washington students Thomas Pryor and Navid Azodi put a sensor array on each glove that measures hand position and movement.
That gesture data is captured and sent via Bluetooth to a computer that then translates American Sign Language into spoken words that emerge from a speaker. This all happens within seconds. The duo was awarded $10,000.
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Another favorite of mine is a completely automated restaurant invented by MIT undergrads Kale Rogers, Michael Farid, Braden Knight, and Luke Schlueter. Their Spyce Kitchen cooks and serves nutritious meals from fresh ingredients in under five minutes - without human involvement. (Seems appropriate that one of the guys is named Kale.) This alternative fast food setup has a refrigerator, stovetop, and even a dishwasher. It only takes up 20 square feet, too. The team received a $10,000 prize.
But the one invention that took the cake for me comes from University of Colorado Boulder PhD student Heather Hava. A self-proclaimed "space gardener," Hava is focused on figuring out better ways to grow food in space. It's a big challenge. Four years ago she received a NASA Space Technology Research fellowship and has clearly been putting that to good use.
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Hava's inventions include a smart growth chamber called SmartPot that can work autonomously - and with astronauts - to grow produce in space. The enclosed robotic chamber acts like a microclimate, optimizing conditions for growing fruits and vegetables. A screen on the outside displays the plant's health data.
She also developed software called AgQ that processes data from the SmartPot, allowing astronauts to send the robot feedback about plant care. For her efforts, the Lemelson-MIT program awarded her $15,000.
The Lemelson-MIT program has a special place in my heart. I don't know how the program's leadership does it, but the winners every year seem genuinely bright and humble about what they're doing. These kids are a hint that maybe the future actually is in good hands.