Teen uses curiosity, science to save lives

vbridges@newsobserver.comJune 8, 2014 

  • Invent-it-yourself

    Advice from Chase Lewis:

    • If you think inventing is hard, something only great people can do, you just need to look around you. Everything manmade is an invention.

    • Find a problem. The solution to that problem is an invention.

    • If you get hung up while inventing, don’t panic. Just try looking at the problem from another angle.

    • If this doesn't work, try calling in some help – friends, family, anyone with a new perspective. Even people with important titles are often willing to offer their assistance.

For Chase Lewis, the world is full of riddles just waiting to be solved.

“It is really just a curiosity to find a problem that needs fixing,” said Chase, 14, of Chapel Hill.

His most recent riddle centered on preventing people from inhaling smoke while trapped in burning buildings.

Chase’s solution was a football-shaped canister containing a cloth-like smoke mask that could be thrown to people on upper floors while they await help. The emergency mask pod won him recognition at this year’s Spark!Lab Invent It! Challenge and an opportunity to seek his second patent on one of his inventions.

Chase’s invention was chosen from hundreds of entries submitted by students ages five to 18 from across the world in the contest sponsored by the Smithsonian’s Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation. Chase, a rising 10th-grader who is homeschooled, plans to attend Camelot Academy in Durham this fall.

Chase’s prize package includes a patent application, which can be costly, filed on his behalf. Chase won the same contest last year for a modernized travois, a triangle-shaped vehicle used by the Plains Indians that consisted of two crossed poles bearing a platform to carry a load.

Chase’s travois, in which the patent application is still pending, was inspired by a news article about the 2011 famine in Somalia.

The article described parents leaving their children on the roadside because they couldn’t make the weeks-long walk to a refugee camp. Chase’s invention sought to allow parents to easily pull their children on a triangle-shaped cloth cart mounted on two wheels.

Chase’s most recent riddle started with a July news report. A Georgia mother had thrown three children, including a newborn that was caught by a 10-year-old girl, out of a second-story apartment because they were trapped by smoke during a fire.

Smoke inhalation, not burns, causes most fire deaths, according to the National Fire Protection Association. Smoke incapacitates its victims as the fire consumes the oxygen and transforms the air into a deadly concoction of particles, vapors and toxic gases. In 2012, nearly 1.4 million fires were reported that resulted in 2,855 civilian and 64 firefighter deaths and 16,500 injuries.

“So I figured, ‘Well, there has to be a way to protect people from the smoke,’” he said. “Something that can be thrown up, launched up, delivered to them to give them more time to wait for firefighters.”

Chase looked at existing systems, such as oxygen canisters and large gas masks. He quickly ruled those out because they were too heavy.

Then he found a lightweight mask and smoke filter made by Xcaper Industries, which makes fire safety products for civilians and emergency responders.

“From there I just needed to find some way to deliver it,” Chase said.

He tried a T-shirt cannon, often used by mascots during professional sports games. The accuracy was abysmal, he said. He also tried a tennis ball canister and a grenade-shaped container made form a soda bottle and dowel. The projectiles were tested by nearly 40 firefighters.

Those tests led to Chase printing a football-shaped canister on his three-dimensional printer, which he bought using prize money won in previous science competitions. Since 2012, Chase has won three national science contests and placed in the top 12 and 10 in two more.

Chase said he is working to build on his most recent invention with a system that uses a combustion-based launcher to reach people in fires on top floors in tall buildings.

Chase thinks other kids share his curiosity, but aren’t exposed to the same encouragement and opportunities. That’s why he is advocating for middle schools to incorporate an “inventing 101” class.

“At least statewide if not nationwide,” he said.

Meanwhile, Chase’s mom, Michelle Lewis, said she both admires and is frustrated by her son’s curiosity. She wishes he would play outside more but struggles to pull him from his science magazines and projects.

“I feel like I am fighting against nature,” she said. “Like there is a force that is inside Chase. He is having fun when he is learning.”

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