CROTON-ON-HUDSON, N.Y. – A fifth-grader at Pierre Van Cortlandt Middle School was named the New York State Merit winner of the 14th annual Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.
Ben Shapiro, 11, of Croton was selected for the prize based on his design of weight bars to help polio survivors adjust from outdated, metal braces to new plastic braces. Each year, thousands of middle school students enter the contest, and one student from each state and the District of Columbia is selected to receive a State Merit Winner prize.
The nation's premier science competition for students in grades five through eight, the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge rewards middle school students for their science acumen, demonstration of innovation and curiosity, and communication skills. The challenge asks entrants to create a two-minute video communicating the science behind a possible solution to an everyday problem in one of three categories: The Way We Move, The Way We Keep Ourselves Healthy and The Way We Make a Difference.
Ben selected The Way We Move and designed weight bars to help polio survivors adjust to lighter plastic braces. Many aging survivors of polio, such as Ben's grandmother, Jean Shapiro, 86, continue to use iron leg braces designed around the time of Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration. Iron leg braces are uncomfortable, often causing pain and skin irritation.
As Ben explains in his video, many survivors are accustomed to the weight of the iron braces. Pain-free plastic braces are lightweight and adjustable, but the change can be a difficult adjustment for those who have worn iron braces for a long time. The lighter braces make them more prone to falling.
“Their brain has processed walking with a heavy brace. The plastic one feels too light and throws them off balance,” said Ben, who invented weight bars that can be affixed to the lightweight braces to solve the problem. The young biomechanical engineer displayed the bars in his video submission, along with an explanation of how they work and how the bars are attached to each plastic brace.
“The weight bars trick the brain into thinking it’s the same heavy brace,” Ben said. “Initially, they can take the weights off for about an hour a day. Once they get used to it, they can take off the bars altogether. This will help the 10 million polio survivors around the world.”
Although the design is just a prototype, Shapiro's mother, Caron Shapiro, said the experience persuaded Ben's grandmother to schedule a fitting for a new plastic brace. Caron Shapiro said, "Ben was talking to the people, and he was saying, 'See, Grandma, you're not alone. Other people are changing their brace, and you can do it, too.'"
Caron Shapiro said Ben hopes to use the camcorder he received as a prize from 3M to continue his grandmother's story.
Referring to Carrie E. Tompkins Elementary and Pierre Van Cortlandt Middle schools, Caron Shapiro said, “Ben is fortunate to have had terrific teachers throughout his school career both at CET and PVC. We appreciate their efforts, and Ben looks forward to using the new state-of-the-art labs recently built at the high school.”