Science with a soul

Plight of Somalian families inspires boy to invent a way to help

schandler@newsobserver.comOctober 14, 2012 

For his most recent project, 13-year-old Chase Lewis was moved to put his scientific mind to work by a story that pulled at his heart.

His mother read aloud a news article about the 2011 famine in Somalia that said parents were having to leave their kids by the roadside to die if they couldn’t make the 2-to-3-week walk to a refugee camp.

“I was just floored by it,” he said. “It sounds horrible that they should have to do this. And as I thought about it, my mind wandered to the travois, an invention of the Native American Plains Indians.”

Parents could use a modernized travois, Chase thought, to carry children along the route. So he developed a prototype, a cloth-covered net stretched on a triangular frame mounted on two wheels that can easily be pulled by one person.

The invention, and a short video he made explaining it, earned him one of just 10 finalist spots in the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, a national science contest for students in fifth through eighth grades. He received $1,000 and is in St. Paul, Minn., this week presenting his travois, navigating some scientific challenges on site, and vying for the grand prize: $25,000 and the title “America’s Top Young Scientist.”

Closer to his Chapel Hill home, Chase has already had some practice with high-profile presentations. Last month, he showed his travois to Gov. Bev Perdue and Jeff Warren, senior policy adviser to N.C. Senate President Pro Tempore Phil Berger. As he wheeled his travois from the Legislative Building, past the N.C. Museum of History and Museum of Natural Science and then to the Capitol, Chase even gave some passing kids a ride.

“I didn’t put the governor in it,” he said, laughing. But he did have a chance to explain his invention and the plight of families fleeing famine to his young passengers and their mother, who happened to be from Ethiopia, which borders Somalia.

“She said that she knew exactly what I was talking about and it was completely true,” said Chase. “It really was happening over there.”

He said he hopes his prototype will one day become a real product, with backing from a corporation or nonprofit. He envisions it being made collapsible, so it could fit into boxes and be airdropped along refugee routes along with simple instructions.

“I’d be very happy that it was finally getting over there and actually doing something to help people,” he said.

As he presents his travois at the Young Scientist Challenge, Chase can draw on his experience earlier this month presenting a different project – on nitrocellulose – at the Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering for Rising Stars) contest in Washington, D.C. There, he won first place in the engineering area of the competition, which earned him $3,500 toward a research-focused summer camp next year.

He enjoys science contests – whether on a regional or national level – for the chance to delve deeply into subjects he loves.

“I’m just interested in how things work, why things happen, what happens,” said Chase, who is homeschooled. He credits the influence of a rocket scientist grandfather who worked on several Apollo missions, including Apollo 13, for sparking his interest in science from a young age.

“When I was really, really little, in kindergarten, I was talking about Pangaea and exactly why the dinosaurs went extinct,” he said.

It’s likely that science will figure into his career plans someday, but he’s not ready to make that decision just yet. And, ideally, he may never decide.

“I don’t think I’m going to do just one thing,” he said. “That would be so disappointing, I think. I’ve heard that humans get bored of what they do after about 5 of 6 years and they need to go and do something else. I think that would give me enough time, if I did a new thing every five years, to do quite a few things in my life. So that’s what I’d like to do.”

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