The Current

Teens' award-winning inventions show why STEM education is so important: advocate

Anush Mutyala and Vinny Gu have both received awards from Youth Science Canada at the National Fair in 2023. And advocates for children in STEM say stories like theirs are the reason there needs to be a continued emphasis on innovation.

Anush Mutyala and Vinny Gu have received awards from Youth Science Canada for their work

Two teenagers stand next two each other displaying their inventions. One holds a laptop, while the other holds a wireless headset.
Vinny Gu, left, and Anush Mutyala, right, hope to continue to work to improve their inventions. (Niza Lyapa Nondo/CBC)

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Anush Mutyala may only be in Grade 12, but he already has hopes that his innovations and inventions will rival that of Elon Musk.

"I always tell my friends something that would be funny is if I'm competing head-to-head with Elon Musk in the race to getting people [neural] implants," Mutyala told Matt Galloway on The Current

Mutyala, a student at Chinguacousy Secondary School in Brampton, Ont., created a brain imaging system that he says opens the future for permanent wireless neural implants. 

For his work, he received an award from Youth Science Canada at the National Fair in 2023, which highlights young people pushing innovation. 

And advocates for children in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) say stories like Mutyala's are the reason there needs to be a focus on fostering innovation and wonder in young people. 

"Starting very young, we need to be encouraging questions and curiosity and wonder and empathy and resiliency," said Bonnie Schmidt, founder and president of Let's Talk Science, a Canadian nonprofit NGO that works with young people interested in STEM. 

Tackling new inventions 

Mutyala wanted to create a way for neural implants to last longer. Implants can help people hear better, or move parts of the body they otherwise couldn't, but neural implants in particular face issues with regard to power consumption, and traditionally must be replaced by surgery after their batteries die. That can be every five years. 

But Mutyala thinks his system, Enerspike, can change that. The algorithm he designed lowers the energy consumption needed for implants to process and translate brain signals into making a limb move.

"You would essentially never need to replace wireless implants again for the purpose of battery replacement," said Mutyala. 

Mutyala was inspired by Stephen Hawking, who famously spoke with the use of a speech synthesizer.

"What if we used technology like this and we were able to restore his complete communication ability? He would have been able to communicate at a much faster rate and he would have had a much greater impact on society," said Mutyala. 

A teenager holds a wireless headset he built.
Anush Mutyala used this brainwave headset as a proof-of-concept for his system to make implants last longer. (Niza Lyapa Nondo/CBC)

And Mutyala isn't the only innovator. Vinny Gu, a Grade 11 student at Markville Secondary School in Markham, Ont., also received an award for creating DermaScan, an online application that can look at a photo and predict whether the person photographed has skin cancer or not.

"There has been some attempts at this problem in the past. However, they usually result in very low accuracy. However, I incorporated a technology to help my model better detect the minor small details in the image in order for it to get a better prediction," said Gu. 

He says it doesn't replace visiting a dermatologist — but it can give people an option to do pre-screenings with ease, which can help them decide if they need to go see a dermatologist. He says his model is 90-per-cent accurate. 

He is currently testing Dermascan, and he hopes to one day make it available for free to anyone who needs it. 

A melanoma spot.
An image of melanoma, by the University of Pittsburgh Department of Dermatology. Gu says his new application can determine with 90-per-cent accuracy whether an image of skin shows evidence of skin cancer. (The Canadian Press)

Importance of science

Schmidt says there needs to be opportunity for everyone to explore their passions and build their skills like Gu and Mutyala have done.

And she says expanding that opportunity is a big responsibility.

"Everybody's involved. Everyone. Parents, teachers, family, caregivers, friends, peers, celebrities, raising the bar and making STEM accessible and not something over in the corner for an elite bunch," said Schmidt. "That's got to be everywhere."

A woman holds a pink balloon.
Bonnie Schmidt is the founder and president of Let’s Talk Science. (Let’s Talk Science)

Fostering that kind of curiosity is critical in order to tackle major issues like health care or climate change, she said. To do this, Schmidt says there needs to be a change in how we teach science in school. Instead of biology, chemistry and physics, she says classes should focus on issues.

"Why aren't we looking more at an issues-based programming in which you bring in the tools from very different fields to come together to understand how we might be able to to look at health differently, to look at food and agriculture differently, to look at the big grand global challenges which cannot be segregated into traditional fields?" she said.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Philip Drost is a journalist with the CBC. You can reach him by email at philip.drost@cbc.ca.

Audio produced by Niza Lyapa Nondo.

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