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ISEF alum’s team wins SPARK awards for sensor system

Barnas “Barney” Monteith, an International Science and Engineering Fair finalist in 1992 and 1994 and Science Talent Search semifinalist, was recently part of a team effort that won awards in both the prototype and ideation categories of the Science Play and Research Kit (SPARK) competition. The Society for Science & the Public caught up with him at his booth in the USA Science and Engineering Festival held in Washington, D.C. this April to learn more about his entries.

I first heard about the SPARK competition through an email message sent out to alumni of the Society’s science competitions. [SPARK was a joint effort of the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Society for Science & the Public.] Our company, Tumblehome Learning, had already published several books and small items meant as supplemental materials designed to help develop the pipeline of future science fair participants by getting children interested in science and experimentation. We had always planned to do more, but when we heard about the competition, we decided it was time to come up with something more concrete.

I’ve been the Chair of the Massachusetts State Science and Engineering Fair for years, and I know how important the science fair experience was for me personally. The books we’ve published (four available now, and four more being published in the fall) and our submissions to SPARK all try to maximize hands-on experiences. We want kids to have fun while they learn, not just memorize facts. We want them to be interested in becoming scientists and engineers. To do that, we have to reach kids early and in their own language. We’ve found that the storytelling approach is particularly helpful with that, as the kids identify with the characters who are working through the STEM-based problems they encounter. One upcoming book uses codes and ciphers and is set at a location based on Intel ISEF. We also think offering books, software, and kits (like what we submitted to the SPARK competition) cater to students’ different learning preferences and provide as much flexibility as possible.

We created the SenSay Sensor System because we thought existing sensor platforms were aimed at specific markets; they either were too simple or too complicated. We wanted something that kids could use without access to a lot of background knowledge or skills in electrical engineering, software, soldering, etc. but that would still have sensitive sensors that they could use at home, after school, or in various locations. We decided that creating something modular, but flexible, so that it could be combined and used in different ways was the most useful. We wanted to spark ideas for science fair projects in students that may not have extensive resources. Opportunities in STEM shouldn’t be limited by factors like the economy.

Our next step is finding reliable partners that can help us bring this to commercial scale production. We’ve already had some successful discussions with partners, which I don’t think would have happened without the publicity and seed money that winning SPARK awards provided. Our system is interlocking and we don’t want kids to get frustrated if one piece doesn’t work, so we want an experienced partner. We also plan to conduct more beta testing. We want kids to have a quality experience and enjoy working with the sensors.

About the SPARK projects:

The Tumblehome Learning team won second place in both the prototype and ideation categories for related concepts. The “SenSay Sensor System” is a modular all-in-one sensor and exploration kit with online supports. The kit lets explorers experiment with physics, environmental energy, biology, chemistry and engineering design without having to solder parts together or use a pre-existing bulky microcontroller. The sensor allows users to gather data, provides output on a computer, and provides immediate feedback via sound, light, and graphs. The kit provides a novel way to get children interested in – and interacting with– data and its analysis.

SenSay Sustainable Villages, if developed, will allow young people to design and build model solutions to universal problems of human settlement, including shelter, heat and insulation, lighting, solar and wind power, pumping and purifying water, growing plants with irrigation or hydroponics, and managing a pond or aquarium. Users would experiment both virtually and in the real world, where they will use sensors and other components of the SenSay Sensor System to model solutions to challenges.

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