She has a couple more years to go before she's eligible for a driver's license, but 14-year-old Katharine Wu, a high school freshman from Maryland, is already working to make the road a safer place for everyone.
Wu is a finalist in the 2014 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge thanks to her entry for an ingenious device designed to detect and prevent drowsy driving. What's equally impressive: she submitted her video entry to the challenge, which awards prizes for scientific solutions to everyday problems, last spring while still in middle school.
According to the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, driving while fatigued causes at least 100,000 crashes a year -- and the agency says that drowsiness is widely underreported. To combat this problem, Wu created the "driver's companion."
The companion prototype consists of a Bluetooth-connected headset linked to a Raspberry Pi, a tiny credit card-sized computer. Wu programmed the companion to track body changes via electroencephalography, or EEG, which monitors the electrical activity of the brain. As Wu explains in the video, if the device detects slower EEG waves and increased blinking -- both of which indicate a lack of alertness -- it sends audiovisual wake up calls before the driver begins to drift off.
Wu hopes that the companion, engineered to be proactive and not reactive, will help stem the number of crashes.
“I really like how you can learn something and use that to help society,” she told The Washington Post.
Over the summer, Wu worked alongside 3M's Dr. Jesse Miller to fine-tune her device for the competition's final presentations on Oct. 13 and 14. The winner will receive $25,000, a trip, and the title of "America's Top Young Scientist."
"It is imperative that we cultivate our nation's next generation of great thinkers, innovators and science communicators by providing them with engaging ways to explore the science that goes on every day in the world around them," Dr. Cindy Moss, Discovery Education's Director of Global STEM Initiatives, said in a press release.