The Science Play and Research Kit (SPARK) competition winners were announced today. The SPARK competition was a challenge to “reimagine the chemistry set for the 21st Century,” according to the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Society for Science&the Public press release. Many people in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) careers today often recall being inspired by the chemistry sets of old that stimulated their curiosity, wonder, and interest in science. Sadly, many chemicals included in these old sets are now illegal and the newer sets, well, just don’t have the same kinds of thrilling experiments. The SPARK competition hoped for new and innovative ideas that would develop, according to the press release, “persistent curiosity and creativity that lead to longer term engagement in science and engineering, as well as to put a spotlight on the importance of experiences that ensue from unscripted exploration and tinkering.” Without further ado, the following are the winning entries in the SPARK competition:

Manu Prakash, PhD (Stanford, CA), an assistant professor of bioengineering at Stanford University, and his graduate student George Korir – who created what could literally be a 21st century chemistry set - won the first place award of $50,000. Prakash and Korir developed a prototype of an inexpensive “lab on a chip” using a technology known as “microfluidics.” Microfluidics uses programmable microchips containing miniature pipes, valves, and pumps to carry out a wide variety of chemistry or biology experiments. Until now, the high cost of this leading edge technology has confined its use to major laboratories. Prakash has found a way to produce very inexpensive (about $1) yet fully functional versions of this technology that children can use to design and carry out their own experiments – much as they would with traditional chemistry sets, but now using a safer self-contained kit with nanoliters of chemicals, enzymes and other reagents.

Second prize ($25,000) in the prototype category was won by Robijanto Soetedjo, MD, PhD (Kenmore, WA), a neurophysiologist with the University of Washington. Dr. Soetedjo developed a toy set that children can experiment with to see the effects of the electrical signals produced by their muscles, their hearts, and even their brains. Electrodes are attached to a part of the body, such as the forearm, and to another device that shows them the effects of their electrical signals. For example, by tightening a hand grip, the child can turn on a light, spin a propeller, control a motor or (through an audio amplifier) emit a sound. The toy set can also interface with a range of computer devices and helps opens up the space of neuroscience and biofeedback as areas for children to explore in play.

Tying for third place ($10,000) were a team led by biologist and geologist Barnas G. Monteith (Tumblehome Learning, Inc.), of Brockton, MA, and including Pendred Noyce, MD (Weston, MA) and Peter Wong (Brighton, MA); and a group led by physicist Deren Guler (Brooklyn, NY), along with Michael Rule (Providence, RI) and Laura Miller (Brooklyn, NY).

The Tumblehome group, which also won second place in the ideation category for a related idea, developed what they call the “SenSay Sensor System.” The 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.

The Invent-abling team created a number of gender-neutral kits that enable young inventors to create science and craft-based projects using such materials as color-changing fabric, switches, magnetic viewing film, conductive ink, and electronics. The kits provide opportunities to learn science concepts while children explore creative applications. The group has made an explicit commitment to engaging girls and under-represented young people in the fun, thrill and work of “making.” The kits evolved from the group’s realization that, although there are great kits for creating electronic gadgets and wearable devices for young designers, many are geared more toward boys.

Prototypes awarded honorable mention ($5,000 prize) included 4-D printing software and technology, an earth and space systems kit, a cardboard circuitry kit that requires building and soldering from scratch, data visualization and pattern recognition software for young children, and an expandable home science exploration kit.

Winning a first prize of $5,000 in the ideation category is David M. Gertler (San Francisco, CA), a manufacturing engineer with Google X/Makani Power, for his “Survival Shelter Science Project.” The proposed project would use a narrative theme to engage young people, ages eight and up, to build and experiment with the goal of improving or creating a desert relief shelter. Scientific techniques and engineering solutions would be applied to real-world materials. The project, which could be done by an individual child or group of children, would require the young experimenters to expand on general instructions in order to build, and provide power and water to, a model shelter. Users would be provided with inexpensive instruments – such as thermometers and voltmeters - to enable them to take simple measurements of the mechanical functions of their “shelter.”

Second prize ($2,500) in the ideation category was won by the Tumblehome Learning team, this time led by physician and science education advocate Pendred Noyce, MD (Weston, MA), along with Barnas Monteith and Peter Wong. Dr. Noyce and colleagues developed the concept of SenSay Sustainable Villages©. If developed, the project 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.

Winning third prize ($1,500) in the ideation category is Douglas Thornton (Columbus, OH), an electrical and computer engineer with Battelle Memorial Institute, for “The Physics Ball – A Microscope for Physics.” As envisioned, the “Microscope” provides students with an engaging, explorative learning tool through the embedding of sensors inside a small ball. These sensors would measure acceleration, angular rate, magnetic field, pressure and temperature. A wireless link would transfer measurements from the ball to a user interface (computer or tablet), which would provide data to the student. The user interface would define experiments, and could be used with free apps and open-source software.

8 April 2014 press release, Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation and Society for Science & the Public