10 jaw-dropping innovations by middle schoolers

By: Suzanne Guillette
These students came up with amazing ideas that could change their world before they even hit high school

“What if…?”

That simple question has led to many astonishing breakthroughs. So it should come as no surprise that kids, who are naturally curious, are some of the best innovators around.

These 10 ingenious creations by middle school students will awe you and hopefully inspire you to follow your own curiosity to amazing new places.

The Swine flu virus

The Swine flu virus

10. A supercomputer program that saves lives from flu infections.

In 2009, when an outbreak of swine flu caught 13-year-old Eric Chen’s attention, he discovered that current anti-flu drugs weren’t as effective as they could be. Reading up on the Spanish Flu of 1918, it dawned on him that modern life offers an important tool: computers.

Eric thought, “Why can't we use the new computer power at our fingertips to speed up drug discovery and find new flu medicine?”

Over the next several years, under the guidance of researchers close to his home at the University of California-San Diego, Eric used a supercomputer to screen half a million chemical compounds and found six that inhibited flu growth.

After Eric spoke about his research with President Obama at the 2014 White House Science Fair, Obama commented, “I’m such an underachiever.”

9. A day at the beach that led to the first waterproof prosthetic limb.

On a family trip to the beach, Adeeb Al Balooshi worried about his father, who couldn’t go near the water because of his artificial foot. Nine-year-old Adeeb had a solution—a waterproof prosthetic, designed with environmentally-friendly medical wax.

And this was just the beginning. Adeeb went on to create several more amazing inventions, including a seat belt heart monitor that alerts first responders in emergencies and a tiny robot that cleans hard to reach places. He’s also spent time at Space Camps in Hunstville, Alabama and Houston, Texas, where NASA experts taught him and his fellow students how to build rockets. Adeeb may soon add “rocket scientist” to his list of credentials.

8. A product that keeps teens’ hands on the (SMART) wheel.

Even though 12-year-old T.J. Evarts was too young drive, he was concerned about teens injuring themselves and others by texting while driving. Along with The Inventioneers, a group of young robotics enthusiasts, T.J. came up with SMARTwheel, a steering wheel cover that helps drivers stay focused on the road. Pressure sensors alert teen drivers—and simultaneously, their parents, via smartphone—when they take their hands off the wheel. The team scored venture capital funding following an appearance of ABC’s Shark Tank. The life-saving product launches later this year.

The Diction Defender team during a marketing planning session. Photo: Mollie Kelliher

7. A language skills app that’s fun (and functional).

With the rapid rise of SMS-inspired spelling in the past decade, it’s no secret that language skills among today’s young students have fallen by the wayside. But last year, to a group of seventh graders in Longmont, Colorado, this was no LOL-ing matter. Hoping to help other students who had decided that yellow smiley emojis count as writing, they came up with a plan: to make writing fun via an app idea they submitted to the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge.

Diction Defender simplifies the writing process. Players learn how to vary sentence structures, avoid wordiness, and ensure subject-verb agreement.

The seventh graders’ hard work and good intentions paid off: their app idea won Best in Nation in the competition.

The Mind Glass app in action. Photo: Google Play promotional video

6. An app that helps dyslexic students read more easily.

Plano, Texas eighth-grader Rishi Shridharan felt for his dyslexic classmates who struggled to keep up with reading assignments. For his seventh grade science project, he tested 150 of his peers to see if changing text size would make reading easier. Overwhelmingly, the results showed that this approach made a big difference in reading comprehension.

He and a group of his classmates decided to enter the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge to offer their classmates with learning disabilities a practical solution: an app that changes the appearance of text to make reading easier. The idea, Mind Glass, won the team Best in Nation in the competition, and as a result, was made into a working app.

Rishi says, “My favorite part of this project was making my classmates feel included.”

5. A scientific breakthrough about cellular reorganization.

When Samantha Marquez was 11 years old, she read a Harvard-published paper on the study of colloidosomes, or the inanimate structures that safely deliver drugs to the body by acting as capsules that protect the medication inside them. As if that weren’t impressive enough, Samantha decided to improve on the idea: what if they could use living cells to perform the same protective function?

With that question in mind, Samantha invented Celloidosome, a 3-D capsule made up of living cells. Samantha found that Celloidosome could do better than deliver drugs—it could be used to help reorganize tissue. The discovery has the potential to do a wide range of amazing things, from helping humans metabolize drugs and regenerate damaged organs to cleaning up nuclear waste.

4. A groundbreaking neuroscience study on how music affects emotions.

After watching the movie Inception, Michelle Marquez, then 12, was sitting around the kitchen table with her sister and parents, a chemist and an engineer, discussing mathematical structures of things that people can touch and feel.

This got Michelle thinking about the structures of things that can’t be touched or felt, like music.

Specifically, she wanted to know how music affected the brain. So she created a device that places electrodes over the head and measures electrical brain activity in response to different types of music. She discovered that certain sounds, because of their mathematical structure, resulted in an uptick in feel-good emotions, while others caused anxiety and fear.

This new scientific understanding of how the brain turns sound into emotion could be the basis for using music therapy to treat mood/attention disorders and PTSD. In fact, neuroscientists at some of the county’s leading research institutions, including Harvard, are examining Michelle’s work as a potential treatment.

Two members of the Hello Navi team, with their friend and app inspiration, Andres Salas. Photo: YouTube

3. Compassion for a classmate that led to an app for the visually impaired.

While most students don’t think twice about the between-class hallway rush, six thoughtful middle school girls in Los Fresnos, Texas noticed the difficulties that one of their blind classmates was having.

For the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge, the 11- and 12-year olds submitted the idea for Hello Navi, an app that helps visually impaired students get around by measuring the user’s stride with a pedometer and using a digital layout of the school to provide accurate directions.

As for the classmate who inspired the project, Andres Salas told People Magazine, “I have adopted six new sisters, because they care for me and made this happen for me.”

2. A robot that can rescue disaster victims.

After hearing about people trapped in tornado rubble in Granbury, Texas, 12-year-old David Cohen created a robot that looks and moves like an earthworm that can locate people during natural disaster search and rescue missions. This project earned him a spot as a finalist in the 2014 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

David’s next lightbulb moment came when his sister developed a painful staph infection from a mosquito bite. He went back to the robotics drawing board and invented a prototype that drowns immature mosquitos with a pump-jet system that uses mesh to trap the bugs underwater—an innovation that has been hailed as a potential cure for malaria.

1. A devastating storm that inspired an idea for better flood protection technology.

When Superstorm Sandy hit, costing an estimated $65 billion in cleanup costs, 11-year-old Peyton Robertson was paying attention. A Florida native, Peyton was no stranger to the havoc that storms can wreak. So he came up with a bright idea for flood prevention: lightweight, reusable sandbags. To increase their effectiveness, he filled bags with expandable polymers and salt, making the bags heavier than salt water when wet. In 2013, he won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge for this innovative invention.

This was not the first time Peyton used science and math to solve a problem: After watching his younger sister learn how to ride a bike, he invented retractable training wheels; he now holds four patents on the idea, and is working with a major bike manufacturer to produce them.

On The Ellen Show, Peyton said, “The world is a dynamic place that we can change and effect.”

Well said, Peyton.

If you have your own bright idea about changing the world with technology, the Verizon Innovative Learning app challenge is open for submissions in August. You can submit your idea and if it’s chosen, Verizon will help you turn it into an app.

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Suzanne Guillette’s work has appeared in Tin House, O Magazine, Quartz and the Rumpus. She lives in New York City.