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Dublin High School Freshman Wins Grand Prize at Science and Engineering Fair

March 29, 2014

Dublin High School Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair EntryMight a future Dublin High School graduate be responsible for a vision related technology breakthrough? In the fast moving world, anything is possible. However, one would be wise to follow the future of a current Gael. Meet Mr. Kumaran Ratnam. We posted a global story on the recently concluded 3rd Annual Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL) Alameda County Science & Engineering Fair. The Fair and competition was open to all middle and high school students in Alameda County. 640 students elected to accept the challenge and produce an exhibit across multiple categories. At stake were various awards including 1st through 3rd place, Best in Category, State Qualifier and Grand Prize. In the pinnacle group there were only four awardees. Kumaran captured one of them – as a ninth grader. As it turned out, Mr. Ratnam and his classmates were going to participate as it was an element of his Biology with Research class taught by Janet Kaehms. OneDublin.org recently sat down with both of them as they shared the journey to a Grand Prize.

Kumaran and his family transplanted to Dublin during the summer of 2013. His parents are both Engineers – Dad works for Cisco and Mom is at Oracle. He has a younger sister, Jayani, who is an 8th grader at Fallon Middle School. This was a rather significant move for the Ratnam’s as they relocated from Acton, Massachusetts. As we learned, this was not the first time that Ratnam has succeeded in a science fair. Project ID: MH 5017 – A Novel Energy Harvesting System with a Piezo Element to Power a Visual Prosthesis.

OneDublin.org: The subject of your project is fascinating. What specifically inspired you to research this subject?

Kumaran Ratnam

Kumaran Ratnam

Kumaran Ratnam: “We all take our lives for granted. I got interested in finding out how vision works and understanding vision related issues because I have a close family member with visual impairment. When I was in middle school, I did a project on age related Macular Degeneration (one of the leading cause of blindness in USA) and designed an ultrasonic guiding device. That project took me all the way to the national level and I was selected as a National Semi-finalist at Broadcom MASTERS. From then on, I got more and more interested in vision issues and I wanted to make the life easier for visually impaired people.”

OneDublin.org: Before you even started, how much did you know about the Piezo electric solution? Where did your online and offline research take you?

Ratnam: “I had absolutely no knowledge of piezo electricity before this project. I came across an article in the New York Times on Second Sights trial on Argus II (R). It was an interesting article on a device that gives sight to certain kinds of blindness like Retinal Pigmentosa and Macular Degeneration. I read more on this Argus II and wanted to find out if blind people can actually see with this device. It is a very impressive breakthrough, however, the clarity of vision is limited. Then I did more research on all kinds on retinal implants and internal visual prosthesis systems. I wanted to see what was the hurdle in making a more sophisticated visual prosthesis? As we all know, energy is a limitation to all devices and it is one of the limitations in designing a more advance prosthesis. For an internal visual prosthesis, doing a surgical replacement of battery is a painful procedure. I was looking for a way to extend the battery life inside. Then I thought if there was any way to harvest energy internally. This is when I came across this Piezo where we can harvest energy from sound or vibration. It was an amazing and exciting moment in my life when I found out we can harvest energy in this manner. I did research and found out the Piezo effect had been demonstrated in 1880 by Pierre and Jacques Curie brothers. There is mountain of information on piezo electricity, which will take me years to understand to the fullest.”

OneDublin.org: Please share with us what it meant to receive one of only four Grand Prizes from the Science & Engineering Fair.

Ratnam:“Winning a Grand Prize has meant a great deal to me. Coming to the fair, I was hoping to get some type of placement. This is like dream come true. Winning a Grand prize and going to the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair (ISEF) is my dream. I still can’t believe I won a grand prize. I never expected that I’d make it to ISEF in 9th grade.”

OneDublin.org: While you are currently a freshman, certainly you have thought about the future. What your academic goals – both at DHS and beyond? What are you envisioning as possible career paths?

Ratnam: “First I want to graduate from DHS with good grades. I haven’t made up my mind yet on a career path. Bioengineering is one field that I am fascinated about. Solving a medical problem with engineering solutions is very exciting. Also, I am interested in ophthalmology. During my research on visual impairment and blindness, something really disturbed me. I came to know that cataracts are the leading cause of blindness in the world. That was a shocking truth to digest. While a cataract can be cured by a 10 minute outpatient surgery, in developing countries, cataract patients end up in spending their lives in darkness. Ever since, I have been thinking of becoming an Ophthalmologist and want to travel around to developing countries and I want to give the gift of vision, if I can.”

OneDublin.org: The school year is now about two thirds complete. Please describe your first year experience at Dublin High. Has it met your expectations and did anything surprise you?

Ratnam: “I am very proud to be a Dublin High student. When I came to DHS on the first day to register for classes, I was impressed by the welcome given by the DHS staff. I found DHS to be a very friendly and welcoming environment. My teachers are excellent. When I was going through freshman class descriptions, “Biology with Research” really caught my attention. PLTW Engineering classes are very impressive too. I am fortunate to have all these excellent choices available in Dublin. I am very excited to see the new Medical Science PLTW classes starting this year. I am grateful for these marvelous opportunities given to us at Dublin High School.”

OneDublin.org: Anything else that you would like to add?

Ratnam: “I would like to take this opportunity to say few words to middle school and fellow high school students. Science brings lots and lots of fun. I want you to try it out. You would be amazed to see how much fun you can have while you learn tons of new things when you do independent projects.I would like to thank my science teacher, Ms. Kaehms, for starting a ‘Biology with Research” class. Her guidance and support to every student is amazing. I would like to thank the Alameda County Science and Engineering Fair and the founding director, Ms. Patti Carothers. Ms. Carothers is a dedicated director and she responded to every question I had within hours or within a day. I can’t believe how she managed to give personal attention to ~640 students who participated.”

The Dublin Unified School District was highly represented at the Fair. In fact, there were 112 projects presented between Dublin High School and Wells and Fallon Middle Schools. But, a significant number of these exhibits were generated out Biology with Research. We invited Kumaran’s science teacher, Janet Kaehms, to share her thoughts. 

OneDublin.org: The research projects were a required element of the Biology with Research class. Please assess the quality and the variety of the projects that your students produced.

Dublin High School Science Teacher Janet Kaehms

Janet Kaehms

Janet Kaehms: “The two main goals for the research projects are logical thinking/assessment of variables and design, and, technical reading/writing.

“Assessment of variables and lab design is easier for the students when someone else is writing the lab. When it’s their own design they struggle to recognize and limit the variables in a logical way. It’s a process, and, the extended amount of time we spend on the science fair allows for many revisions to be done on the projects.

“For many of my students this is the first time they have been introduced to the concept that technical writing is very different from narrative or descriptive writing. Technical reading/writing demands a much higher attention to detail. That is challenging for many of my students. I work with a wide variety of skill levels in my class and my goal is improvement. I use a rubric that is very rigorous so students are aware of the goals for their writing. We do peer-evaluations before turning in our work and practice with several inquiry based labs before we write our final science fair projects.

Even with all that background work and practice the science fair projects vary widely in quality. It’s a process and each student moves along to the best of their ability in the time we have. My goal is improvement for each student.”

OneDublin.org: Based upon the feedback from your students, what were some of the challenges that they faced?

Kaehms: “My students have a hard time picking a small enough topic to study and then an even harder time designing a good way to test or evaluate their ideas. Outside of that, working with others on something so important to the course and over such a long period of time is frustrating for many. They learn to compromise, plan ahead, and communicate clearly in order to work efficiently with their team. Some choose to work alone instead. Another hurdle is that the students don’t realize how much time the work will take, and, that they may need to revise their design and test again to get usable data. I support the students in this process by having interim assessments to help them focus and move forward in their work.”

OneDublin.org: While we are sure that you’re proud of all of your students, Kamaran’s accomplishment was superior. What do you envision for him in the next three years at Dublin High and beyond?

Kaehms: “Kumaran is bright and interested in medicine/engineering. Dublin High offers both an engineering academy and a medical academy. The courses in both these Project Lead the Way academy, in addition to Dublin High’s strong science offerings like Honors Anatomy/Physiology, AP Bio, AP Chem and AP Physics will round out his high school science courses. He hopes to be a bio-engineer and he is already well on his way.”

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