Windsor

From ASL gloves to anti-slip devices, teens win big in national science fair

From a glove which can help people understand sign language to a walker which will prevent slips and falls, these youth are taking science experiments to the next level.

They competed against 462 other teens from across the country

Ahmad Ali, left, Callum Yoker, centre, and Brent Charron took their inventions to Fredericton, N.B. this past weekend — and all came home as national medallists. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

From a glove which can help people understand sign language to a walker which will prevent slips and falls, youth in Windsor are taking science experiments to the next level.

The Canada-Wide Science Fair has wrapped up in Fredericton, N.B. Three teenagers from Windsor, Ont. — Ahmad Ali, 17, Brent Charron, 16, and Callum Yoker, 13 — all received medals after competing against 462 others their age.

SignSMART glove

Ali received a bronze medal and a $1,000 entrance scholarship to Western University for his invention, SignSMART, a glove that translates ASL gestures into text and speech.

"The problem with languages like ASL is it is not understood by most hearing people, hence there's a communication gap between the hearing and non-hearing communities," said Ali.

Ahmad Ali says his invention looks to 'bridge the gap' between people who use ASL to communicate with others and those who can't understand it. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

The gloves use "flex sensors" along the fingers and knuckles to create electric currents, which are wirelessly transmitted to a smartphone, which then announces the letters through a speech-to-text function.

Ali said the idea came to him in Grade 11 after taking a computer science course, where he came across an article by two university students who created their own "sign language glove."

Tap on the player below to see SignSMART in action:

Ahmad Ali, 17, invented a glove which can translate ASL gestures into speech via Bluetooth 0:41

But according to him, there were a lot of flaws in those designs.

"I took it upon myself to re-engineer the glove. After several iterations, here we have my final prototype."

Slip-prevention walker

Charron's invention of slippery surface detector won him a bronze medal and a $1,000 entrance scholarship to the University of Ottawa.

The device can attach to mobility aids — such as walkers and canes — to tell the user when they're traversing a slippery surface.

"With seniors in Canada, one in four have vision problems — meaning it's very hard for them to see whether or not the ground is wet or icy," said Charron.

Brent Charron invented a device which attaches to mobility aids like walkers, to determine the slip risk of the surface ahead. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Charron's inspiration came from something which affects everyone — the weather. He said he noticed someone slipped and fell while using a walker outdoors. 

The 16-year-old demonstrated the device in CBC Windsor's office kitchen. When the walker was moved over water on the ground, a screen placed on the centre of the walker read, "Warning, may be slippery!" The warning is also audible.

Part of Charron's invention includes a visual display which warns users if the surface below is about to change from, for example, tiles to carpet. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Cell membrane manipulation

There's no question that 13-year-old Callum Yoker brought the biggest prizes of the competition back home to Windsor — two gold medals, a $4,000 entrance scholarship for Western University and an additional $500 from Youth Science Canada.

Yoker designed a new method for chemically manipulating bacterial cell membranes — specifically, lactobacillus which normally lives in people's digestive, urinary and genital systems.

Lactobacillus is also in some fermented foods like yogurt and in dietary supplements.

Callum Yoker, 13, designed a new way of manipulating cell membranes, earning him a junior gold medal at the Canada-Wide Science Fair. (Sanjay Maru/CBC)

Yoker said his method is a more "cost-effective" way of targeting a specific gene and moving it into bacteria so the gene can reproduce itself.

"A good example of this is the human insulin gene. If you've ever wondered how they actually get the insulin to put in insulin shots, they take the human insulin gene and move it across the bacterial cell membrane and into the cell," he said.

"So the bacteria can duplicate the gene and express the gene of interest in the form of proteins."

His grandfather was the source of inspiration. He was recently diagnosed with Parkinson's disease. Yoker wanted to learn how to "mass produce" proteins which can stop the production of genes linked to the disease.

Southwestern Ontario — Windsor, London, Barrie, Niagara and Sarnia — was represented by 28 students in the competition, including Ali, Charron and Yoker.

About the Author

Sanjay Maru is a reporter at CBC Windsor. Email him at sanjay.maru@cbc.ca.

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