Science and engineering fair fetes teens’ ideas from around the world

Hadaia Ezzuldin, a ninth-grader from Iraq, came up with a way to thwart piracy in movie theaters. She displays her project at the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair at the L.A. Convention Center.
(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

Hollywood, meet Hadaia Ezzuldin. She’s 14 and is in booth PH070 at the Los Angeles Convention Center.

A ninth-grader from Erbil, Iraq, Hadaia was watching an Arabic-language romantic comedy called “Omar & Salma 2” when it dawned on her that she was viewing a pirated video.

“I could see that the camera that recorded it was moving,” she said. “That was wrong. The people who make the movie should get the money from its sale, not the person who steals it.”


So Hadaia came up with a way for theater operators to thwart the unauthorized duplication of films by using small infrared LED lights that can be embedded in movie screens. Invisible to human eyes, the tiny lights appear to glow brightly when recorded by cellphones or digital cameras, making the illegal copy useless.

Hadaia is one of 1,787 teenagers competing for $5 million in prizes and scholarships in the weeklong Intel International Science and Engineering Fair conducted by the Society for Science & the Public. The nonprofit group has staged the annual event since 1950.

The next-generation scientists and engineers qualified for this year’s competition with winning projects in 450 “affiliate fairs” in 70 countries. Those fairs pay for the teens to come to L.A.

A few rows away from Hadaia was Kalyani Ramadurgam, 17, of San Diego. Her entry was inspired by the aftermath of last year’s Boston Marathon bombing.

“I saw that the pictures of the terrorists were obscured and it took a long time to identify them,” Kalyani explained. “So I designed facial recognition software that can identify faces that are looking away from the camera. It improves the recognition of obscured faces by over 50%.”

How does it work? “I’ll skip over the math, but I look at pixel patterns in combination with facial features,” she said. “I learned how to do it by watching online courses from MIT.”

Some of the projects being evaluated Wednesday by 1,200 volunteer judges were elaborate, like Mina Fahmi’s humanoid robot designed to work in risky situations. Inspired by the story of a man who risked his life to help clean up after the Chernobyl disaster, the 17-year-old from Hollywood, Md., demonstrated his robot’s tactile ability to a dozen judges who rotated through his booth.

Other devices being demonstrated by teenagers were constructed with common household items.

Mackenzie Grubb built a mechanical knee out of hinged pieces of wood with a guitar string used to simulate the patellar tendon. She was motivated by a 2011 injury she suffered playing soccer in Bradenton, Fla. “I’m developing a brace that you can put a computer chip inside that doctors can use to change the calculations used for the brace,” the 16-year-old said. “I’m looking at a career in prosthetics.”

Other projects are more esoteric. Amrit Sahu, 14, of India developed a computerized sensor attached to the tongue and lower mouth that enables the speech-impaired to make their intended sound. Daniel Mogilny, 15, from Richmond, Canada, concocted an algorithm that analyzes Twitter profiles to detect characteristics such as depression. Survir Mirchandani, 15, of Pittsburgh developed a Web browsing system that uses eye tracking to help people with motor impairment navigate a Web page.

Queenie Luo, 17, of Marlboro, N.J., designed a working prototype of a device that can be attached to the sole of one’s shoe and will charge a cellphone’s battery as the person walks. Dylan Rossbach, 17, of Missoula, Mont., created a football helmet with a sliding outside layer that moves independently from an inner layer in order to protect a player from a concussion during an impact.

Also on hand were student observers such as Zoe Zawol, a 14-year-old who attends Sierra Madre Middle School. The eighth-grader was ineligible to enter her Los Angeles County Science Fair-winning cosmic-ray project because she’s not yet in high school.

Rick Bates, interim chief executive of the Society for Science & the Public, praised the Los Angeles scientific and engineering community handling the judging. Top winners of the competition will be announced Friday afternoon.

“The $5 million worth of prizes being given are the least important thing,” said Wendy Hawkins, executive director of the sponsoring Intel Foundation. “The important thing is that it’s shown these kids that they are scientists being judged by other scientists. They know now they’re part of a larger community.”
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