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Young Minds Solve a City's Old Problems

  • June Soh

Every city has its problems, and hopefully is always looking for unique ways to solve them. One eastern U.S. city is hoping the creativity and outside the box thinking of young people can come to the rescue.

An oyster habitat, abandoned houses converted to gardens, a cart that turns into a homeless shelter, a multi-layered rainwater filtering system — these are some of the products they came up with.

The inventors are students, from 10 to 17 years old, from the eastern US city of Baltimore, Maryland.

The idea is to get kids to identify urban problems, then work to solve them as part of a unique program called FabSlam.

Big problems, simple answers

Sixth grader Sydney Lane-Ryer and her team focused on the decreasing oyster population in the nearby Chesapeake Bay.

"Our solution," she explained, "was to create an oyster habitat that will sit on the bottom of the ocean, or I guess the harbor in our case, that will be connected to a floating wetland that has a bunch of different plants that will also give nutrients with their roots to the oysters to help them thrive, and it will also help filter out toxins and dirt and other things in the water."

A high school team decided to tackle a different problem: how to deal with more than 16,000 abandoned homes in Baltimore.

"We wanted to convert abandoned row houses into greenhouses," said Natasha Dada, "that would serve as community gardens and also would produce food for homeless shelters and soup kitchens in the area."

Thinking outside the box

The Digital Harbor Foundation, which sponsors youth technology programs, hosts FabSlam.

"The purpose of FabSlam is to give kids a chance to experiment with creative problem-solving," said Shawn Grimes, the Foundation's Technology Director. "So we present a challenge to them that's very open, very vague, and we give them an opportunity to come up with their own solution to their own problem that they identify within that sort of constraint."

The teams had six weeks to get everything done — from identifying a problem and doing research, to designing and developing a prototype or a product using a 3-D printer and other digital manufacturing techniques.

For Natasha and her team tackling abandoned homes, the problem was huge and the solution complicated.

"A lot of these houses... don't have gas or water or electricity," Natasha told VOA, "so we wanted to make the house self-sustaining. We have solar panels on the roof. ... We also have an irrigation system with rain collection and filtration that automatically waters the plants."

The teams pitched their project to the judges and presented them to the audience.

The winner was the Digital Oyster Foundation.

Judge Marty McGuire said his favorite part of the project "is that they essentially showed us something that they could put in the water right now and we can see how well it works."

For sixth grader Sydney Lane-Ryer, the competition was eye-opening. "I really learned a good life lesson here," she said. "I learned that with the right technology and even with your own hands and your mind and creativity, you really could make something that could change the world."

Let's hope so.