IN 2016, WHEN GITANJALI RAO FIRST HEARD ABOUT the water crisis in Flint, Mich., she was shocked that something so essential to a community could be compromised. “It was scary to think about these kids drinking water that was harmful for their bodies,” says Gitanjali, 13. “I felt like clean water was a right. It was definitely something I took for granted.”
Gitanjali saw a problem that was hurting others, and she wanted to fix it.
In just three and a half months, she came up with a solution: a portable device that could detect the levels of lead in water faster and at a lower cost than what is currently available. Gitanjali called it Tethys, after the Greek goddess of fresh water. Her device uses disposable cartridges that, once dipped in water, provide accurate and immediate readings of lead levels. “It’s based on something called carbon nanotube sensor technology,” she says. “And with a Bluetooth extension, it gives you results on your mobile phone.”
With Google at everyone’s fingertips, coding tutorials readily available and open-source systems unlocking ever-expanding possibilities, young people like Gitanjali are increasingly using technology to solve weighty problems. And with a refreshingly non-jaded “what if” mindset, these teens might just figure out a way to create a better future for us all.
CONCERNED BY AN INCREASE IN CALIFORNIA WILDFIRES, high school classmates Aditya Shah and Sanjana Shah (not related) joined forces in 2016. “Because of climate change, extreme weather events, like flooding, wildfires and droughts, are on the rise,” says Aditya, who is now 17. “We feel this urgency to protect the environment for later generations.”
The teenagers, who live in Cupertino, Calif., were already working in the field of environment protection and water conservation, and wanted to use their science and tech knowledge to create long-lasting solutions. “Sanjana and I have been coding for a long time,” Aditya says. “Programming is essentially our second language. We have a good sense of solving problems by integrating hardware and software. We live in a world of technology, with cloud computing and machine learning, so we thought, ‘Why don’t we develop a device that is able to take into account factors like wind speed, temperature and humidity, and also use image recognition to identify the types of fuel in the area that contribute to a wildfire happening?’”
And they did.
Aditya and Sanjana created the Smart Wildfire Sensor, an outdoor hardware setup that predicts the likelihood of fires before they start, with the potential to protect homes and lives and reduce firefighting costs. The sensor can be mounted to a tree and has two parts: a device that records and transmits weather data, and an embedded high-resolution camera that captures images of the biomass, the organic matter that acts as the fire’s fuel.
“Using TensorFlow, Google’s open-source machine-learning platform, we analyze images of biomass and estimate their moisture content to find out the amount of dead fuel,” Sanjana says. “We’re getting about 89 percent accuracy.” The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection took an interest, and the two teens are now working with the department to further develop, test and implement this technology to mitigate wildfire risks, which have increased exponentially in recent years.
“If you’re dreaming about some potential solution, you have all of the resources you need online,” says Sanjana, who also developed the Smart Flood Sensor. “Prior generations did not have these resources, but now, anyone can easily learn programming. If you can dream it, you can do it.”
HAVING GROWN UP IN JOHANNESBURG, KIARA NIRGHIN was dismayed three years ago when she saw that the normally full reservoirs in her city were nearly empty because of a severe drought. So she came up with an eco-friendly way to help farmers grow food even when rainfall is scarce. Nirghin won the 2016 Google Science Fair at age 15, with a creation she made from orange and avocado peels that increases the chance for plants to sustain growth during a drought by 84 percent.
“It’s a lot cheaper than the synthetic material farmers currently use,” Nirghin says. “Plus it’s more effective and better for the environment.” Known as a super absorbent polymer, the powder can be sprinkled on top of soil, mixed into it, or added in tablet form to retain water hundreds of times its mass, creating mini-reservoirs and allowing crops to thrive in drought-stricken areas.
“Even though a lot of people think that teenagers don’t have the resources to come up with solutions, and say, ‘You should wait until you’re a scientist,’ I completely disagree,” Nirghin says. “Teenagers can be very good at understanding problems.”
Nirghin is now a student at Stanford and has partnered with an international agricultural company to develop her product. “I think young people bring something so unique to the table, in terms of their imagination and what they can create,” she says. “Our communities should take advantage of that.”
WHEN YOUNG PEOPLE USE TECHNOLOGY TO SOLVE PROBLEMS, they can sharpen their critical thinking skills and become more confident, says Eli Kariv, the chief executive of a computer-science-based after-school program called the Coding Space. “There are so many times I see students of all ages think of new ways of approaching issues,” he says. “Students can figure out things that adults may not know or that someone did not teach them. At that point, you can create anything.”
Josh Sheldon agrees. “Kids are fearless,” says Sheldon, an associate director of the MIT App Inventor, where Gitanjali learned to build apps. “Adults learning to code are tentative and afraid to move a mouse to click something, because they think they might break the computer or crash the program. Kids are just, ‘We’ll try it. We’ll see what it does.’”
Gitanjali says she failed time and time again while developing Tethys. Until she didn’t. “My mantra in the beginning was, ‘Just have fun with it,’ because I didn’t know what was going on: ‘Carbon nanotubes, what?’” she says. “And by the end of this, I figured it out, because I was experimenting and trying new things. I wasn’t afraid to fail.”
Now in eighth grade at Science Technology Engineering Math (STEM) School Highlands Ranch near Denver, Gitanjali is enhancing the Tethys unit to be “a lot more accurate, compact, affordable and easy to use,” she says, so people worldwide will be able to easily test their drinking water. She also plans to use the Firebase app development platform to allow Tethys users to upload the results of their water test. “With that data, I’ll create a global water-quality heat map using Google Maps Heatmap function,” she says.
Gitanjali now codes just about every day and regularly creates new apps. “Because Android has an open architecture, I am able to use third-party tools to develop apps quickly and test them,” she says. “Also, Android is the most common operating system in the world. I like that anybody in developing countries who cannot afford an expensive iPhone can use the app.”
Gitanjali’s inspiring journey with Tethys was recently featured in the Google Search On short documentary series. And her newest endeavor? “I want to learn gene editing,” she says.
Somehow, this 13-year-old also finds the time to mentor younger children, offering her own style of anti-bullying seminars, which includes a little science. “I start with the message of kindness and then end the sessions with one STEM topic, such as 3-D printing or simple programming, or ways to observe problems around us,” Gitanjali says. “It’s amazing to see that kindergartners and first-graders can understand problems easily and jump to solutions without barriers.”
Armed with technology and determination, today’s young people offer hope that humanity will get back on the right path. “We are growing up in this reality where you’re seeing global problems that never existed before,” Rao says. “That’s where this creative mindset comes from: We want to make the world better for everyone.”
Ready to make your mark? Google offers free resources to help both students and teachers learn computer science. If you’re between the ages of 13 and 18, you can submit your idea to the Google Science Fair to solve a problem using science and technology.
Have an idea for how you could use AI to build a better world? Check out the Google AI Impact Challenge, an open call for nonprofits, academics and social enterprises around the world to share proposals for how they could use AI to help address social and environmental challenges.
Illustrations by Tom McCarten