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What Happens When High School Students Take A Stab At The Tricorder X Prize?

The conceptual device from a California high school comes up with ingenious ways to measure sickness that even the professionals working on the contest didn’t think of.

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The scientists and engineers competing in the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize—a $10 million competition to build a handheld tricorder (see: Star Trek) that can rapidly measure vital signs—are attempting to create well-designed, reliable products that work. While high school students don’t generally have the technical know-how to make a working tricorder, they’re more creative than many adults. Just look at the juniors at Da Vinci Design High School in Hawthorne, California, all of whom have come up with ingenious tricorder designs of their own.

Industrial design consulting firm Karten Design is just 10 miles down the road from Da Vinci—a collaboration with a design high school makes sense. So Karten and teachers in the biology and history departments at the high school came together to create a project for students that would merge the idea of immigration with biology. The end result: a "tricorder lite" project that challenged 130 students to create a tricorder designed to address diseases faced by immigrants in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Many of these diseases—including pneumonia and malaria—are still prevalent today.

The safari mask breathing treatment.

Early on in the process, Karten brought in the X Prize Foundation to contribute to the project. "Part of our mission at the foundation is educational in nature. In the first round, the conceptual stage, we came in and gave [students] commentary and critiques on what they were doing," explains Mark Winter, senior director for the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize.

The students were divided into groups of four and five; they were assigned specific immigrant groups to focus on (Irish, Polish, Russian, etc.) as well as a target user group—mothers, for example. The kids started working on their projects six weeks before the school held an exhibition night. "We chipped off a little week by week, and in classes taught content that would be relevant. Karten taught them a lot about the design process—the methods behind what designers do, how they think outside the box," says Rick Barclay, an 11th grade U.S. history teacher at Da Vinci.

The tuberculosis breathalyzer system.

Winter cites the Tuberculosis Breathalyzer System, designed for mothers suffering from tuberculosis, as one of his favorite designs. The device is meant to be used in the shower, when the mother has a couple minutes to herself. "They were looking at ways to contain and control inhaled respiratory agents that you don’t want to let loose into the environment," says Winter. If the tuberculosis becomes severe, a wireless telemedicine system alerts nearby paramedic stations.

Another particularly well-done design is the Safari Mask Breathing Treatment, an animal-themed pneumonia vaccine dispenser for kids. The vaccine is dispensed as a candy-flavored vapor. "In the end, the students ended up being extremely proud of their products," says Brittney Larkin, an 11th grade biology teacher at Da Vinci.

This isn’t the first time Karten worked with the high school; one project with freshmen encouraged students to create their own functional headphones and use them to play poetry on social justice. The X Prize Foundation also works with other student groups in high schools and universities.

The Da Vinci project was the first educational initiative for the Qualcomm Tricorder X Prize, but there will be more to come. "It’s challenging to teach innovation. Being able to stage and structure something that has a real-world problem with real-world constraints and limitations and allow students to investigate the problem with those in mind is not something that’s easy to do," says Winter. "To the degree we can bring knowledge and design of the prize to these academic organizations, we can help them stage that experience and allow students to understand the challenges and opportunities … to provide that framework of experience."