SXSWORLD February 2014


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Jack Andraka Offers Teen Perspective to Public Education Debate by Shermakaye Bass A ll too often, we hear about the dismal rankings of American students in the fields of math, science, technology and engineering, and how we lag woefully far behind countries like China, Japan, India and Germany in our efforts to prepare our youth for their 21stcentury destinies. So, how did we get a kid like Jack Andraka? A product of Anne Arundel County public schools in Maryland, Andraka is a somewhat typical 16-yearold high school sophomore who just happened to invent a device that could save tens of millions of lives. With his 2012 discovery of a protein biomarker, mesothelin, found in pancreatic, ovarian and lung cancer victims, and his subsequent invention of the dipstick-sensor process that can detect the cancers in their earliest stages, Andraka made international news and snagged the 2012 Gordon E. Moore Award, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair's grand prize. Since then, he has continuously charmed the media, showing up everywhere from 60 Minutes to The Colbert Report and hobnobbing with everyone from President and First Lady Obama to Bill and Hillary Clinton, and even being honored by the Vatican. Yes, Andraka is one cool nerd, not to mention one who came up through the ranks of America's supposedly broken education system. "I'm definitely a strong believer in the public school system," he recently emailed between trips to Germany and Ireland. "It has helped me become the person that I am and set me on the path of science through science fair." Yet, like most mindful students, he thinks positive changes could and should be made in how we educate our kids. "I think that American public schools can improve science education by involving more handson experiments in the curriculum, as well as promoting independent scientific research projects such as science fairs — and on a high level. Science is something that you do, not something that you learn from a textbook." At home, Andraka and his older brother, Luke, conduct experiments in the basement-cum-laboratory in their parents' home in Crownsville, near Annapolis, with their parents' encouragement. "My parents are both scientists, and my entire extended family are engineers and scientists, so it (innovation) runs in the genes," Andraka says, adding, "My parents really got me interested in science when I was three, when they would have my brother and me do various rudimentary science experiments." The process of encouraging kids' innate sense of wonder is simple, and the earlier you kick-start their questing minds, the better. "Don't discourage tinkering, such as taking apart household appliances; instead, 40 SXSWORLD / FEBRUARY 2014 work with your kids on these projects," Andraka suggests. "Also, children follow their parents' example, so do science experiments and read with kids." And although Andraka has a high regard for his teachers at North County High School, where Jack Andraka he is in the STEM program, he thinks that institutionally, American schools could focus more on real-time experimentation and research, and put less emphasis on "book learning" in the outdated mode of memorization and regurgitation. Anraka believes one of the biggest things that can help budding scientists in the classroom is "encouraging the correct use of electronic devices and the Internet (so) that we can create a much more democratic and open education system." He also thinks scientific websites should remove a key obstacle for young innovators with no budgets. "Open access to scientific journals, and trying to bring down paywalls would allow everyone to do scientific research," he points out. On the subject of the ubiquity of gadgets and technology in the average teen's life, Andraka has a philosophical view: "The cell phone, social media and the Internet are tools that can be used for good or bad, just like science is. Science has the potential to do great evils such as nuclear warfare and multi-resistant bacteria, but it can also do great good, such as cancer therapies, treating the environment and so on. The same goes for cell phones and social media — they can be used as distractions and hot spots for cyber bullying, but they can be mediums for democratizing innovation and making information universally available." What is not surprising about Andraka is his teenage ebullience and optimism. "We are living in an extraordinary time, where we do see various global issues such as poverty, starvation, violence," the 16-year-old says. "But also we see amazing innovations such as new cancer therapies, nanorobots and quantum computing. The largest problems are actually the largest opportunities, and I believe that we as a human race have the ingenuity to solve these problems." So what's next? Andraka is currently working on the Tricorder X-Prize for $10 million, sponsored by the Qualcomm Foundation. For this competition to develop a device the size of a smartphone that can detect any disease instantaneously, he has assembled an "all-star" team of high school students from around the world to compete against 300 teams of adults. Will Andraka's youthful crew take home the big prize? Stay tuned … n Jack Andraka will be a Featured Speaker at SXSWedu on Tuesday, March 4 in the Hilton Austin Downtown.

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