These 10 middle-schoolers are inventing new ways to change the world

By Ben Paynter

Trains carry serious freight but aren’t really energy efficient. That could change in the future, though, thanks to a new design idea for powering them. Instead of relying on an electrical current or diesel, as trains in the U.S. do, this new concept would run a simplified air circuit alongside the tracks. It’d look kind of like the Hyperloop, but instead of blasting pods filled with passengers through this circuit, train operators would simply fire a projectile outfitted with a strong magnet along the route. The main idea: This magnet could be strong enough to pull a train along with it, therefore saving energy.

The most impressive part: The inventor is just 13 years old. Her name is Caroline Crouchley, and she’s one of 10 finalists in the annual 3M Young Scientist Challenge, organized in partnership with school curriculum provider Discovery Education.

The Young Scientist Challenge is basically a next-level science fair with some entrepreneurial flare. The national competition for middle-school students invites kids to dream up innovations that can solve a global issue or improve lives. These are typically demonstrated with real experiments and physical or computer models that contestants share through a two-minute pitch video. As you can see below, Crouchley’s is very instructive.

Contestants can submit in one of six categories—health, safety, connectivity, the environment, energy consumption, or the community—although there is often overlap. While the winners are all from the U.S., their solutions extend to global issues. “Today’s youth are concerned about their futures and want to do something about it. They want solutions, not just talk,” says Denise Rutherford, 3m’s senior vice president of corporate affairs in an email to Fast Company. And the competition works like a platform to enable that. “3M Young Scientist winners have gone on to speak in front of members of Congress and the United Nations, work with the nation’s top scientists, and pursue academic careers in science,” she adds. “We are really energized to play a part in shaping the next generation of change makers who will lead and mold our future.”

This year, four of the final projects focused on the environment. Among the rest, there were three for energy consumption, two for health, and one for connectivity. One key theme was sustainability. For instance, 12-year-old Camellia Sharma built a new kind of leak detection system to identify places where pipes may be cracked or ruptured, a problem that wastes trillions of gallons of water each year. Instead of using expensive and imprecise ground radar or listening devices, her cheap and reliable homemade device tracks low-grade shifts in the surrounding area’s electrical conductivity.

Another breakthrough is 14-year-old Nishant Lahiri’s low-cost and low-energy carbon capture system for people’s homes. It involves adding polyethylenimine-infused fabric screens to heating and air conditioning systems. His video also uses Legos to share more about the complicated pickup, processing, and sequestering process.

A fourth finalist is 12-year-old Jordan Prawira, who studied the Coriolis effect of wind rotation involved in creating hurricanes. That helped him design a new kind of turbine for renewable energy. Its propeller is shaped in a logarithmic spiral to optimize spins regardless of the force or direction of the surrounding wind. Because the concept is small but mighty, it could work well in already dense urban areas.


Each Young Scientist finalist received $1,000 and the chance to work with a 3M mentor on an advanced prototype that they’ll present at the company’s Minnesota-based Innovation Center in late October. You can learn more about all the finalists here. The winner will earn a $25,000 grand prize, but there will certainly be many ideas worthy of continued development. “We look forward to watching these young innovators as they continue to push forward for change to better the lives of those in their community and the world,” Rutherford says.

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