Young Einsteins unleash the power of science

As Emirati students make a mark at the world’s largest scientific fair, Khaleej Times looks at the potential of the new generation to create an amazing future


Muaz Shabandri

Published: Wed 21 May 2014, 12:07 AM

Last updated: Mon 11 Oct 2021, 3:40 PM

Meet Shamma Al Bastaki and Hayat Al Hassan, the first Emirati students to win a major honour at the world's largest science fair. The duo discovered a new way to save water by more than 50 per cent using hydrophobic sand for agriculture.

Shamma and Hayat were placed second worldwide in the environmental sciences category, earning them global recognition and a cash prize of $1,500 at this year's Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (Intel Isef) hosted in Los Angeles.

“Our generation has the potential to create an amazing future and I want to be part of this future which will be created by us,” Shamma told Khaleej Times.

“There are so many different ideas and perspectives centring on science,” Hayat added. “It has the power to change the world. I have been on a journey of self-exploration with the people I have met.”

With more than 1,700 finalists from 70 countries participating, Intel Isef honours the world's most promising student entrepreneurs, innovators and scientists. The finalists are selected annually from hundreds of affiliated fairs and their projects evaluated by more than 1,200 judges from nearly every scientific discipline.

Wendy Hawkins, executive director of Intel Foundation, said: “The world needs more scientists, makers and entrepreneurs to create jobs, drive economic growth and solve pressing global challenges. Intel believes that young people are the key to innovation. We hope that these winners inspire more students to get involved in science, technology, engineering and math, the foundation for creativity.”

The Society for Science & the Public, a nonprofit membership organisation dedicated to public engagement in scientific research and education, has owned and administered the competition since its inception in 1950 as the National Science Fair.

A group of 16 students from the UAE were sent to Intel Isef this year by the Emirates Foundation. They were selected by a scientific committee which evaluated projects presented at the Emirates Foundation Think Science Competition in April.

Maytha Al Habsi, chief programmes officer at the Emirates Foundation, said, “The Think Science Ambassador Programme inspires and encourages young scientists in recognition that the path to a sustainable future for the UAE lies in the power of talented youth. As role models they are empowered to encourage further exploration and development of knowledge, analytical thinking and skills in their peers as they cooperate to solve local and global technological issues. We are proud and delighted to see these 16 young talented Emirati students represent the UAE as a part of the programme.”

Top three projects

The top three awardees. — Supplied photo

Nathan Han, 15, of Boston was awarded first place for developing a machine learning software tool to study mutations of a gene linked to breast cancer. Using data from publicly available databases, Nathan examined detailed characteristics of multiple mutations of a BRCA1 tumor suppressor gene in order to “teach” his software to differentiate between mutations that cause disease and those that do not. His tool exhibits an 81 per cent accuracy rate and could be used to more accurately identify cancer threats from BRCA1 gene mutations. Nathan received the Gordon E. Moore Award of $75,000, named in honour of the Intel co-founder and fellow scientist.

Lennart Kleinwort, 15, of Germany developed a new mathematical tool for smartphones and tablets. It brings capabilities to handheld devices that previously required more sophisticated and expensive computing tools. His app allows users to draw curves, lines and geometric figures on the touch screen and watch the system render them into shapes and equations that can then be manipulated at will. He received one of the two Intel Foundation Young Scientist Awards of $50,000.

Shannon Xinjing Lee, 17, of Singapore received the other Intel Foundation Young Scientist Award for developing a novel electrocatalyst that may be used for batteries of the future. Researchers have been looking for ways to make rechargeable zinc-air batteries practical, as they would be safer, lighter, and have six times the energy density of lithium ion batteries, making them ideal for hybrid vehicles.

Projects by Emirati students

Grains of gold

Hayat Al Hassan and Shamma Al Bastaki, Al Ittihad Private School, Jumeirah

“Hydrophobic sand or waterproof sand has been around for quite some time. We identified seven global challenges which can be solved using hydrophobic sand. Water scarcity is a huge problem and 75 per cent of all water resources in the UAE are dedicated for agricultural purposes. The sand here is too fine and most of the water seeps into groundwater or evaporates because of the heat. We have used hydrophobic sand to decrease the amount of water used for agriculture by more than 50 per cent. Imagine how it could help if the solution was implemented on a large scale. It will save a lot of the country's resources.”

Multi-purpose exercise machine

Mohammed Al Dhanhani and Mohamed Al Zarooni, The Glenelg School of Abu Dhabi

Young students like us spend a lot of time at the gym and that's where a lot of energy is burned. We came up with the idea of transforming physical energy into electricity and storing it for later use. If these machines are implemented on a large scale, we can generate a lot of energy which is currently being wasted. Imagine having this bike at a beach or a gym where people exercise throughout the day. Creating the bike was a complicated process and we imported some of our spares from the US. We want to spread our idea and make it popular.”

Eyes on road

Mira Humaid Al Ansari and Aysha Abdulrazak Al Ali, Dubai National School. —KT photos by Muaz Shabandri

The main purpose of our project is to detect any road accident and make it easier and more efficient to help victims. We want to reduce the number of road fatalities and our project can go a long way in helping the UAE authorities. If a motorist has met with an accident in a deserted area and does not have the means to contact emergency authorities, our system will kick into action. On-road sensors will detect if any vehicle has come to an abrupt halt and within 10 seconds a notification will be sent to surveillance teams. The notification will show the exact location of the car and provide the GPS coordinates. If there is a monitoring camera nearby, emergency authorities can even monitor a live feed of the accident site.

Bacteria for cleaning wastewater

Mohammed Ali Almazrouei with Khalifa Saleh Al Muhairi and Mohammed Mubarak Al Muhairi from Sweihan School

Soil samples are a rich source of bacteria, some of which can be used to degrade organic pollutants. We wanted to test whether we can isolate different strains of bacteria to degrade pollutants. Drawing inspiration from sand particles, we started a project to measure the effectiveness of sand as a filter and managed to clean even petroleum-contaminated water.”

DatEnergy: Exploitation of palm waste

Reem Al Menhali and Rawan Habreesh, Applied Technology High School, Abu Dhabi

Our project looks at creating a new source of alternative energy. We have taken the waste from palm trees and converted it into an energy source. In the UAE, more than 60 million palm trees are cleaned twice a year, resulting in a huge amount of waste. The fronds of palm trees are burned in an incinerator to create ash. This ash is later mixed with compounds to create cubes of energy. Palm-tree waste is usually buried or burnt and that's when we decided to find alternative uses. Having created combustible cubes, we have powered a toy steam train and successfully demonstrated the viability of our discovery.

Self-cleaning solar panels

Eman Abdul Rahman with Fatima Alketbi and Rahaf Albreiki from Applied Technology School Al Ain

Our project looked at ways to increase the efficiency of solar panels by maximising energy retention. Solar panels have to be perpendicular to sunlight and these panels have to be clean. We have invented a self-cleaning solar panel with auto-rotation. Currently, solar panels have to be cleaned manually and it involves a lot of work. It takes almost two to three weeks to clean solar panels at a site. Our invention makes it easier to maintain solar panels.”

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