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'Brains' Prove Invincible in Science Contest

Lake Braddock eighth graders win regional contest.

Lunchtime seems to inspire Gloria Lee and Marie French. While eating lunch, the Lake Braddock Secondary School eighth-graders came up with the idea for their award-winning science project: a security device that would use advanced equipment to track and identify intruders using information about their brain waves. When sixth-period science teacher Lynn Henson asked them to come up with a catchy name for their project, it was over lunch that they thought of the name "B.R.A.I.N.S. — Brain Reading Alarm: Invincible Neural Security."

"Lunch is very useful," said Marie.

ON TUESDAY, March 21, Gloria and Marie, both 14, received the first prize for their region and age group in the 2006 Toshiba/National Science Teachers ExploraVision Awards Program. The contest, in which students compete to develop a scientific invention that could exist in 20 years, drew nearly 14,000 students from across the country. Gloria and Marie won first place in their region, and will now compete with five other teams in grades 7 to 9 for the national prize. If they win that, they receive $10,000 each, as well as a trip with the other winners to Washington, D.C.

"When I read their project I said, 'This definitely could be a winning project,'" said Henson.

"I'm amazed," said Janet French, Marie's mother. "A lot of their teachers have been very good along the way."

Marie coined a word to describe how she felt winning the contest: "happyful." However, said Gloria, the win came as a complete surprise.

"We really weren't expecting it," she said.

As part of her science class, Henson had students choose from four science project contests to enter. Marie and Gloria chose the ExploraVision contest, they said, because it was the only one that allowed them to work together. They were sitting at the lunch table thinking of ideas, when Marie recalled a book she had read.

"I threw out a random idea. I said, 'Hey, I was reading this book,'" said Marie. "That's what most of my sentences start out with these days."

In the book, she said, intruders were able to trespass onto a property by tripping the motion sensor so often that the security guards thought that animals were tripping the alarm and began to disregard the alarm. The girls wondered whether they could make a motion sensor that could distinguish between animals and humans, said Marie.

As their project progressed, said Gloria, they learned that there is a difference between animal and human brain waves. They learned about the four different types of brain waves and the levels of alertness they signify. Beta waves, she said, signify an alert brain; alpha waves, a more relaxed state; theta waves, drowsiness; and delta waves, sleep.

The end project was a device that uses technology in a combination of magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) and electroencephalogram (EEG) to monitor the brain waves of intruders. The device would then detect and sort information gleaned from the intruders' brain activity and the frequency of their brain waves, such as their gender, age, and emotional state.

"I like science," said Marie. "We had just never ever done anything about brains in class."

THE PROJECT INVOLVED making an abstract, listing present and technologies and the history of EEGs and brain waves, imagining future uses for the device, as well as scientific breakthroughs that would have to happen for the device to work. The girls agreed that the most challenging part, however, was the design process, where they had to describe how they came upon the idea for their project, because their idea had been spontaneous.

They are currently working on the next step of the process, which involves creating a Web site detailing the project and a prototype, or a model of what the alarm would look like. The girls are also trying to come up with a way to make the EEG monitors on the alarm work wirelessly. Currently, said Gloria, EEG monitors only work when attached directly to electrodes on the skull.

Luckily, Gloria and Marie work well together. It helps that they are best friends, they said.

"We had fun writing it, cause we were writing it together and we talked," said Marie. "We talk a lot."

Her love of writing complements Gloria's talent with graphic design, which made the project run much smoother.

One of the most important aspects of the Exploravision contest, said Linda Heller of the National Science Teachers Association, is that it is grounded in real science.

"It is not a science fiction project," she said. At the same time, however, it encourages students to think futuristically. Because of the advancement of technology and science, said Heller, inventions like Gloria and Marie's may soon become possible.

"Many national and regional winners have come out from this school [Lake Braddock]," said Tokiko Soma, a representative of Toshiba, who came from Tokyo to present the award to the girls. Aside from the ExploraVision contest, which Toshiba has sponsored with the National Science Teacher's Association for the past 14 years, Toshiba also offers programs for children at the Toshiba Science Museum in Tokyo, she said.

"We want to build up a new generation, so this is a good program for kids to know about science and be comfortable with science," said Soma.

"We are always pleased to see students like Gloria and Marie that not only have developed a really good project, but that enjoy doing it," said Henson.

As for Marie and Gloria, they both have the same goal no matter how the contest turns out: to go to Thomas Jefferson School of Science and Technology. They are currently in the middle of the application process, and hope their scientific experience will help them at a science-focused school such as Thomas Jefferson.