After a blaze, 12-year-old Shanya Gill invented early detection device for fire

Shanya working on a team activity during the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge, which took place Oct. 27 to Nov. 2. (MUST CREDIT: Lisa Fryklund/Society for Science)

Shanya Gill was upset and unsettled after a fire demolished a restaurant in her California neighborhood last summer. So the middle-schooler got straight to work.

Shanya, 12, a seventh grader at Miller Middle School in San Jose, spent more than a year developing a fire detection device she thinks would have prevented the restaurant blaze.

“I had never really experienced something like that before,” she said of the early morning fire at Holder’s Country Inn, which was reported to have started in the kitchen. No one was injured, but the restaurant was destroyed. “It hit close to my heart because it was part of my community.”

Shanya created a tool that uses thermal imaging to identify when a heat source – such as a gas burner – is left unattended for 10 minutes. Her goal, she said, was to design an early warning system that is superior to a standard smoke detector.

“They had smoke detectors, and yet it still burned down,” she said of the restaurant, noting that while smoke detectors sense active fires as smoke begins to rise, her system is designed to stop unwanted fires from starting.

Shanya recently won the top prize at the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge in D.C. for her fire-detection device. The annual competition is run by Society for Science – a nonprofit aimed at promoting science education.

Judges said they were impressed not only by Shanya’s fire-detection system but also her collaboration and leadership skills. (MUST CREDIT: Lisa Fryklund/Society for Science)

Last spring, 65,000 middle-schoolers competed in Society for Science-affiliated science and engineering fairs throughout the country, and 10 percent of students were nominated for the Thermo Fisher JIC. Of those, 30 finalists were selected by a panel of judges for the competition in Washington, which took place from Oct. 27 to Nov. 2.

“I had definitely worked really hard to get here,” said Shanya, who took home a $25,000 award that she plans to put toward her future education.

The 30 finalists were judged on their science projects – which ranged from a smartphone app designed to identify certain cancers, to reusable menstrual products made from eco-friendly fabric. They were also critiqued on on-the-spot team challenges, including designing devices that study the Chesapeake Bay’s oyster reef ecosystem. Judges wanted to test students’ critical thinking and collaboration skills.

“Shanya is incredibly passionate and thoughtful,” said Meron Mathias, the vice president of corporate social responsibility and sustainability at Thermo Fisher Scientific, a biotechnology company that sponsored the competition.

In addition to noticing Shanya’s strong grasp of scientific concepts, as well as her leadership skills, Mathias said, judges were impressed by her sophisticated fire detection system, which has two key components: a thermal camera and a Raspberry Pi – a tiny, single-board computer.

Shanya Gill recently won the top prize at the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge in D.C. for her fire-detection device. (MUST CREDIT: Jessica Yurinko/Society for Science)

“On the Raspberry Pi, I coded it with Python, and what that code does is, it detects attended fires and unattended fires,” Shanya explained.

The thermal camera tracks temperature and is able to identify warm objects moving horizontally – such as humans – as well as heat sources moving vertically, including smoke and flames. The device will detect when a heat source has been left unattended for 10 minutes, at which point it will send the user a text message alert. The 10-minute setting can be changed by the user.

“The whole idea for this project was to predict fires ahead of time and prevent them,” said Shanya, adding that she was struck by the statistics around residential fires as she conducted her research.

According to estimates from the U.S. Fire Administration, there were 353,500 fires in residential buildings in 2021, which led to 2,840 deaths and almost $9 billion in damage.

“I found out what a big problem fires are,” Shanya said. “I decided to do something about it.”

Creating the prototype was complicated, Shanya said, adding that she faced several obstacles throughout the process.

“I had really big setbacks in my project, and almost all of them were related to code,” she said. “I had two designs and my first design completely failed. It was a really big barricade I had to go through.”

As she worked through it, her coding capabilities improved markedly, she said, and “something that really helped me not give up was cherishing the little victories along the way.”

While Shanya is pleased with her final prototype, she is now working to refine it. She is in the process of trying to find a cheaper alternative to the Raspberry Pi, which starts around $35, and she is also working to fine-tune the code to increase its accuracy.

Her plan is to bring the product to market, and donate the profits to charities that support fire victims.

“This device outperforms smoke detectors in accuracy, speed and affordability,” said Shanya, adding that she wants the final product to cost less than $60, with no installation required. While the cost of smoke detectors varies, they are typically between $15 and $150, and the average cost to install a hardwired smoke detector is around $110.

Yogesh Jaluria, a mechanical and aerospace engineering professor at Rutgers University, said Shanya’s product shows promise.

“The detection system that she has developed is a very good one,” he said. “My main concern would be that it would give false alarms.”

Jaluria – who was not connected to the project and does not know Shanya – pointed out that thermal imagining is typically used for measuring temperatures and hot spots rather than fires. While Shanya’s device would, indeed, detect a fire earlier than most traditional smoke detectors, Jaluria said, “it could be overkill in some cases.”

Shanya said false positives were a big problem when she first created the device, but she has improved on the product’s accuracy in detecting unwanted fires – which during her testing was at 98 percent.

“It’s impressive that a young girl of sixth grade is even considering such an important problem,” Jaluria said.

Society for Science’s annual middle school competition is intended to encourage problem-solving among young students, and encourage interest in STEM, which stands for science, technology, engineering and math.

“Shanya saw a problem and she went after it and tried to solve it, and that’s what we need to encourage with all young people,” said Maya Ajmera, the president and chief executive officer of Society for Science, which has been running the middle school competition for 25 years.

“Research shows that many young people drop out of STEM, especially girls and kids of color,” Ajmera said, adding that competitions help feed students’ scientific curiosity.

Shanya’s success at a young age has made her excited about her future career in science. She hopes to continue creating products that help people.

“I want to stick to my passions and try to make a positive difference,” she said.



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