5 Really Ambitious Science Fair Projects

Intel's Flickr
Intel's Flickr / Intel's Flickr

Borrowing from Thomas Edison, science fair genius is 99 percent perspiration (the sweaty night-before-it’s-due kind) and 1 percent inspiration. And posterboard. But for every high-schooler scrambling to put together a hasty paper mache volcano, there’s a Conrad Farnsworth, a Wyoming high school senior who once built a working nuclear reactor in his dad’s garage—only one of 15 high school students in the world to successfully do so.

In salute to science aficionados going above and beyond “What popcorn pops the most?” projects, here’s a look at five other utterly impressive science fair projects.

1. Anna Simpson: Chemical-Detecting Robot

Courtesy of Intel's Flickr

When it comes to building LEGO cars, bigger is always better. Unless, of course, you’re Anna Simpson, who constructed an autonomous robot that can sweep and detect for hazardous chemicals using Lego pieces and a sensor. The six-inch long robot netted the then-San Diego high school student the Senior Division crown at the 2009 California State Science Fair. To quote Simpson (and paraphrase crowds of kids who flocked to check out her creation): “Wow! And I made that of LEGOs!”

2. Daniel Burd: Plastic-Eating Microbe

Courtesy of ChaCha

Most 16-year-olds’ ideas of “decomposition” are that turkey sandwich that’s been sitting in their locker since Spring Break. But Burd, an Ontario native, won the Canada-Wide Science Fair in 2008 by developing a process that cut the time it takes a plastic bag to decompose from 20 years to three months, thanks to a microbe he discovered. The inspiration for the project? Getting flooded by plastic bags while doing chores.

3. Jonah Kohn: Music for the Hearing Impaired

San Diego native Jonah Kohn won the 13-14 age group (he was 14) at the 2012 Google Science Fair with an invention that helps people suffering from hearing loss listen to music. The self-proclaimed music lover—the project’s name, Good Vibrations, is pilfered from the Beach Boys’ songbook—schemed up a “multi-frequency tactile device” that attaches to parts of the user’s body, translating sound frequencies to certain degrees of tactile stimulation: pretty much making the whole body into one big speaker. That’s music to anyone’s ears.

4. Ryan Garner and Amanda Wilson: Antarctic Submersible 

Courtesy of Arts.com

Calling $5000 a shoestring budget isn’t totally fair—except when you’re two high school students building a camera-equipped underwater rover, that is. But the Santa Barbara duo kept things relatively inexpensive by building the rover—dubbed M’RAJE—using mostly using “off-the-shelf” materials in 2007. M’RAJE took the plunge later that year, making 10 successful dives in freezing Antarctic waters, where it is still being used for climate change research. Pronounced “mirage,” the rig borrows the first initials from Wilson, Garner, and their technicians for its moniker.

5. Ryan Patterson: Sign Translator

High school student Patterson was flipping burgers in his hometown of Grand Junction, Colo., in 2001 when inspiration struck. Remembering some deaf customers needing a translator to get their order right, the 17-year-old developed a glove that translates American Sign Language into letters on a computer screen—a invention that won him $200,000 at 2001’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair. Patterson got the inventing bug early. As a toddler, he carried around an electrical cord instead of a blanket.