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San Diego teen is finalist in international Google Science Fair competition.

June 19, 2012 1 p.m.


Jonah Kohn, student, finalist in Google Science Fair competition

Dr. Jane Willoughby, Ph.D., co-founder, creator of the Science and Technology Research Program, San Diego Jewish Academy

Related Story: SD Teen Among Top Google Science Fair Finalists


This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

CAVANAUGH: This is KPBS Midday Edition. I'm Maureen Cavanaugh. In aren't years, Americans have been dismayed by international comparisons that show U.S. kids lagging behind in math and science. Those figures have begun to tighten up lately as many schools are putting a greater on emphasis on math and science courses, and evidence of that is right here in San Diego. And the person, a 14 year-old, Jonah Cohen, a student at San Diego Jewish academy is one of 15 finalists in Google's international science fair. Thousands of young people from around the world entered that contest. Jonah, welcome to the show.

KOHN: Thank you very much.

CAVANAUGH: Joining Jonah is Jane Willoughby, cocreator of the science and technology research program at San Diego Jewish academy. Doctor Willoughby, welcome.

WILLOUGHBY: Thank you for inviting us.

CAVANAUGH: Jonah, so I read about your project, and the project you submitted to Google science fair is all about helping them with hearing loss experience music. But you came up with the idea because you wanted to hear music better, right? In a very noisy room?

KOHN: Yes, I was in a very noisy classroom with my friend, and we wanted to play guitar, but we couldn't hear the get after over the noise of our classmates. So we found out, if you put our teeth on the top of the guitar, you can hear it through the vibrations am --

CAVANAUGH: That's just the kind of thing your parents would tell you not to do.

CAVANAUGH: How did you go from putting your teeth on the guitar to synthesizing that idea and thinking about what you could do with it?

KOHN: -- well, I had a friend who had hearing loss. And I guess I was thinking about him and how he couldn't experience music the way that we could. And because I guess I couldn't hear anything in the classroom, I thought it was the same effect.

CAVANAUGH: Right, right so tell us what you decided to do then. You don't necessarily have these subjects put guitars to their teeth.


CAVANAUGH: How did you come up with the twice that could use this concept?

KOHN: I designed a device that takes sound and outputs it as vibrations that are in contact with the subject's body, creating an effective tactile sound.

CAVANAUGH: And what part of their body?

KOHN: The main contact points were the fingers.

CAVANAUGH: Ah, ha. And how does this increase the sound? Do you know exactly how this works in the body? So how this actually Augustments the sound for someone?

KOHN: As the actual neurological effects of tactile sound, no one is exactly sure.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. All right. But you just know it works. Okay. How is it that someone can feel the vibration of music by using this device?

KOHN: The sound from the device is outputted on a vibrating speaker.

CAVANAUGH: And how do people who are hearing impaired use this?

KOHN: I've already said, it is in contact with their body, and they feel the vibrations which liken to hearing the sound, technically.

CAVANAUGH: And how have you used this in experiments with people? Have people told you that this increased their experience of music?

KOHN: Yes, people have told me and given ratings that show that it increases their experience of music greatly.

CAVANAUGH: Now, as part of your project, I noticed that you had this very make shift kind of a graph where you show where the people are helped the most. Who's helped the most by this?

KOHN: The people that are helped the most are younger cock leer implant years.

CAVANAUGH: Why is that?

KOHN: Well, people that are under the age of 50 have a better sense of touch. At the age of 50, your sense of touch begins to diminish. And coclear implant musers, because the many channels on it allow for a greater discrimination of frequencies.

CAVANAUGH: And you got some improvement with people with hearing aids, though, right?

KOHN: Yes, also with hearing aids.

CAVANAUGH: That's remarkable. Doctor Willoughby, Jonah is not your own finalist. In fact a high school junior came in first at the huge international INTEL science fair. Tell us about this.

WILLOUGHBY: Yes. We run a program at the San Diego Jewish academy where we try -- we have two parts to the program. Really from middle school and onwards. There's the traditional component that builds their foundation in science. And then we have a very creative experimental component where they're able to create and explore and discover themselves. And that goes in parallel with the traditional program all the way through to high school. So Jonah is a result of our excellent middle school program where he works with one of our teachers who develops these projects in middle school. And they come to me in high school and continue to discover and develop. And we've already had four students who qualified for INTEL. Considering we have 300 students in our middle and upper school, we have had four students that have actually qualified for INTEL, and we had a first this year. If you think about the statistics, seven million students worldwide view for a position at INTEL. And then 1,600 are selected, and from those 1,600, to get a first is really a wonderful achievement. And that was Melissa Fagan who's a junior at our school.

CAVANAUGH: And what did she develop?

WILLOUGHBY: She was very interested -- and again -- she studied biology and was fascinated by building particles to deliver chemicals, and also very conscious of merca, which is a common problem of antibiotic resistance. And she found that she could encapsulate an alternative to an antibody in nanoparticles. And she came up with a way where she could deliver them more effectively to treatment really series microbial infections of the skin. She came up with a technique for delivering silver that overcame these problems so that it wasn't toxic and it actually stayed and was an antimicrobial treatment for a significant period of time.

CAVANAUGH: Let me ask you about the students that enter this program. It's the STEM program?

WILLOUGHBY: Yes, absolutely.

CAVANAUGH: Do they start out being science scholars?

WILLOUGHBY: No, in middle school, we really try and encourage our students to look at a number of different things.

CAVANAUGH: So these are just average students

WILLOUGHBY: These are our students,yia. And it could be in the school, opportunities for our athletes, we have a fabulous humanities problem. So they come into middle school, and they explore science, and then really in high school, they kind of develop their passion. And then they can go into a humanities area, and do elected programs in humanities and sports, or as this program five years ago that we created in science. And we're trying to make sure that when they leave the school, they're passionate. And science is where I come in. I want to provide the colleges of the country with passionate, confident, very able scientific students.

CAVANAUGH: I'm interested. Okay. So a student comes to a faculty advisor. And they say I'm very interested, I just put my teeth on my guitar. And I found out that this is really Augustmenting my ability to hear the music in a noisy room. What does a teacher do with that?

WILLOUGHBY: The teacher believes. The first thing is the teacher listens and believes and says, wow, that's really interesting. What are the next steps for investigating this? And we then teach our students how to reach out into the community through community outreach to find our experts. Because we are so well-positioned in San Diego, we have such scientific universities and colleges here. There are experts. So they go out into the community, they talk and they discuss. And then they come back and then they built these project ideas. Using scientific methodology as to how they're now going to go and answer that question.

CAVANAUGH: Jonah, who did you bring this idea to?

KOHN: To my science teacher, Ms. Sarah Ryans.

CAVANAUGH: And did you outreach with any other science professionals to try to develop this particular project?

KOHN: Yes, I called quite a few professionals. One of the main people that helped me was Doctor Ray Goldsworthy from the Hossier institute in LA.

CAVANAUGH: And did you keep in touch with him while you were creating this device?

KOHN: Not really.

CAVANAUGH: So it was just a basically 1-off and you got the information you needed. What other kinds of science projects have you been involved in?

KOHN: Well, this is my first year at the academy.

CAVANAUGH: Okay, all right. I read that you actually did build an electric guitar, right?

KOHN: Yes, in sixth grade, I decided I wanted to do something special, so I built my own electric guitar.

CAVANAUGH: From scratch.

KOHN: Yes, from a block of wood.

CAVANAUGH: So Jonah is bringing his passion with him to the San Diego Jewish academy, and it's being nurtured there. What other projects are your students developing?

WILLOUGHBY: This year, I had four projects. I had a project, building antimicrobial projects. The one thing I didn't mention, it could be a low-cost treatment that could be used in third world countries. I had a project which was a collaborative project with the natural history museum where I had students that bar-coded ants from San Diego. They were interested and bar-coded a small section of their DNA, and now they're up at the bar-code of life at the university of Guelph in Canada. Then I had another two students that were working looking at algae, and they wanted to come up with a way of using algae to remove phosphate. One of the big issues that we face going forward -- and these are all projects that were created out of the traditional curriculum. That's where the questions came. Then they put them into action in the research program. They had noticed that after gas and water, we have this issue of phosphate limitation that is a big issue. And they wanted to find a way where we could recapture it and reuse it. At the moment, it just drains into the ocean, then it's last forever. And last year, I had a student who did an incredible study which was linked into Scripps where he looked at our red tide.

CAVANAUGH: When you're talking about this, I just recently heard as a cost-saving measure, Governor Brown wants to change the high school requirement in science from 2 courses down to one. And I'm wondering, maybe it's not fair of me to ask you since you are a science teacher, but what is your reaction to that? What could be the consequences of doing that in California schools?

WILLOUGHBY: Well, I mean I think our whole economy, one of the key under pinning parts of our economy is that this country as a tremendous history of innovation in science, technology, and engineering. It under pins our economy, and in San Diego or in California we sathese incredible universities and colleges. If we start limiting our exposure of our students to science, then obviously further down the road, we aren't going to develop these strong science engineers for our colleges. And I feel that's very detrimental.

CAVANAUGH: San Diego Jewish academy is a private school. Do you think science and technology programs like the one you've developed could translate in public schools?

WILLOUGHBY: Absolutely. With the right -- with the right kind of passion that science teachers and math teachers, and I know they do have because I interact with public school teachers all the time, and they're there with the right kind of passion, this can happen. It involves a lot of community outreach. There are many projects that we cannot do at the school because we don't have the technical capability. So I spent a lot of my time out in the community with outreach projects, getting my students internships, and we talk about the students in the program, but we have a whole group of students that go out and work in internships in our colleges and universities. I absolutely do think this with the right kind of outreach can be applicable to our public schools.

CAVANAUGH: When is the winner going to be announced in the Google competition?

KOHN: July 23rd. I will be playing to mountain view.

CAVANAUGH: Will you be able to meet the 14 other finalists?

KOHN: Yes, and I have to tell you there are some amazing projects there. One of the 17 year-old projects, he found a way to cure methamphetamine dictation.

CAVANAUGH: You're kidding me.


CAVANAUGH: That's just amazing. Now, what's going to happen after the competition, after the winner is announced? What will happen to your project 1234

KOHN: I think there are many ways that I can continue these projects, there are many more ways that it request benefit people with hearing loss.

CAVANAUGH: Are there prototypes that people might be able to use?

KOHN: There might be.

CAVANAUGH: Keeping your options open there, huh? What kind of things get your imagination going on projects, would you say?

KOHN: I think just wondering about the fact that science can solve almost all problems. That's just the sheer factor, that is amazing.

CAVANAUGH: Okay. Do you have any idea what your next project is going to be?


CAVANAUGH: Just have to see where your imagination leads you. I've been speaking with Jonah KOHN, finalist for this year's top prize at the Google science fair, the Google international science fair. And doctor Jane Willoughby, cocreator of the science and technology research program at San Diego Jewish academy. Thank you both very much.

WILLOUGHBY: Thank you for having us.

KOHN: Thank you.