Teenager wins $25,000 for science project

Alaina Gassler, 14, beat 29 other middle school students in an annual science and engineering competition. Linda Doane/Society for Science & the Public

Alaina Gassler often saw her mother growing frustrated with blind spots when driving the family’s old Jeep Grand Cherokee in their Pennsylvania neighborhood.

The issue inspired Gassler, 14, to design a system that uses a webcam to show anything that might be blocked from a driver’s sight. A panel of scientists, engineers and educators was so impressed with her prototype that she won the $25,000 top prize at the annual Broadcom MASTERS competition in Washington last week.

“I was shaking so much when they called my name because I did not expect it at all,” Gassler said Wednesday.

She beat 29 other middle school students in the science and engineering competition, which drew 2,348 applicants nationwide. The Broadcom MASTERS, or Math, Applied Science, Technology, and Engineering for Rising Stars, is an annual competition from the nonprofit Broadcom Foundation and the Society for Science & the Public.

In addition to the science fair project, students were also evaluated on their performances during peer challenges that included coding, engineering and designing.

Glasser’s mother, Meagan, said the award showed her daughter “is a well-rounded individual, and not just someone who had a good idea.”

“It felt like you were in a cave, the windows were small, the pillars were large,” her mother said of the old Jeep. “You could lose a person or a car in your line of sight.”

Maya Ajmera, president and chief executive of the Society for Science & the Public, said Alaina stood out, not only for the project but also for her leadership, communication skills and teamwork with other students.

“Everybody hates blind spots. A lot of accidents happen because of blind spots,” Ajmera said. “She took something very personal to her — ‘How do I make this easier for my mom’ — and from there it became an incredible science project.”

Gassler, now a freshman at Avon Grove Charter School in West Grove, Pa., said she wanted to improve automobile safety by removing blind spots created by vehicles’ A-pillars, which support the car’s frame and hold windshields in place.

“There are so many car accidents and injuries and deaths that could have been prevented from a pillar not being there, and since we can’t take it out of cars, I decided to get rid of it without getting rid of it,” she said in her award video.

Her materials included a projector, a webcam and reflective fabric. After attaching a webcam on the outside of a car’s A-pillar on the passenger side, a projector was mounted underneath the car’s roof “to project the image onto the pillar or the blind spot,” she said.

To help the image become clearer and brighter, she applied reflective fabric on the pillar so that the image can be seen only by the driver.

She added that the system worked during test drives with her father, Paul. The family posted a video of the design on YouTube, where it had more than 2 million views by Wednesday night.

For her next prototype, she plans to use LCD screens instead of a projector, because the screens would allow the driver to adjust the brightness and orientation of the image, she said.

Gassler hopes that her prototype will be used by car and tech companies someday. (Her family no longer has the Jeep that was used in the project.)

“I would love to show my project to Tesla, because they are always looking for ways to make their cars safer and they are always looking for more futuristic features to put in their cars,” she said.

New York Times

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