Vyshnavie Prahalathan
Grade 6 student Vyshnavie Prahalathan and her group created a measles detector to help identify the presence of the disease in refugee camps. (Photo: UHN)

Vyshnavie Prahalathan, a Grade 6 student, says she wants to be a lot of things when she's older, perhaps something blending athletics and academics. But she has never had much interest in science.

The Global Health and Innovations Pitch event may have changed that. 

Vyshnavie was among 40 Grade 5 and 6 students who visited Toronto Rehab two weeks ago to present technological innovations they created to help developing countries tackle various healthcare issues.

The brilliant inventions included medicated lollipops to cure malaria, an edible water bottle and a bike that could recharge batteries.

The event was held in the University Centre facilities of iDAPT, which stands for Intelligent Design for Adaptation, Participation and Technology. It was part of the iDAPT Young Innovators' (iYI) Program, Global Health and Social Innovation Event, a collaborative youth outreach initiative with the Toronto District School Board (TDSB) and Toronto Rehab.

iYI regularly brings students for tours, activities, and events at UHN and for talks with Toronto Rehab scientists. This time, teacher Sam Nulf of North Bendale Junior Public School in Scarborough, had the idea of taking the project one step further.

After visiting iDAPT labs and attending inspiring lectures with Drs. Hisham Alshaer, Angela Colantonio and Pooja Viswanathan, the students were given the task of coming up with their own solutions for global health issues.

The elementary school teacher's goal was to engage kids in science through inquiry based learning. The program became an opportunity for the students to see the practical applications research can have.

Thanks to Jahvanna Ryan, iDAPT Business Analyst, Toronto Rehab's iYI partnered with TDSB to help make Sam's idea a reality.

"Once we heard Sam's idea, it was an opportunity that we could not pass up," Jahvanna says. "It was a chance to not only promote proactive community engagement but also provide an irreplaceable and impactful learning experience for these students."

Two scientists taking notes
“I’m a physician and a biomedical engineer, and something like this (the measles detector) never even occurred to me,” says Dr. Hisham Alshaer, scientist and researcher at TRI, holding the device. (Photo: UHN)

Sam says a big part of his approach to teaching is having a process where kids build background knowledge, create cultural connections and develop empathy, which then leads students to discovering problems and proposing solutions for those problems.

"Having great community partners like the Toronto Rehab Institute provides purpose and authenticity to their learning," Sam says. "This is the real life application of what they're learning in the classroom, and that's really important for the kids."

When looking at equity, opportunity and life trajectory, Sam says, events like this give a chance for kids to really see themselves impacting science and healthcare. 

That was the case for Vyshnavie. Her group of three came up with the idea to make a measles detector, similar to a smoke detector, signaling when there are measles particles in the air and how many. She explains that measles particles have a different mass from other particles in the air.

"When this invention detects a lot of measles particles in the air, it will flash red," Vyshnavie says. "If there is a little, it will flash yellow, and when the coast is clear it will flash green."

Vyshnavie and her colleagues wanted to tackle the problem of measles in refugee camps in Kenya, where their research showed many kids like them are dying every week from the disease.

Student holding lightbulbs
“When this invention detects a lot of measles particles in the air, it will flash red. If there is a little, it will flash yellow, and when the coast is clear it will flash green,” says Vyshnavie, a Grade 6 student. (Photo: UHN)

Dr. Alshaer, Toronto Rehab scientist and evaluator at the event, was surprised at how capable the students are to understand complicated subjects at such a young age.

"I'm a physician and a biomedical engineer, and something like this (the measles detector) never even occurred to me," he says. "It's a great idea and I am quite positive that one day we will have something like this in the market."

He says it's important to foster a culture of innovation for the kids.

"When working on their own projects in their own schools, they might not see the full potential of their ideas," he says. "By bringing them to a renowned, world-class research organization like Toronto Rehab, we make them see the big picture and realize that they can make lasting changes through science."

Whether they pursue an academic career or not, Dr. Jennifer Campos, Chief Scientist, Challenging Environment Assessment Laboratory (CEAL) at TRI and iYI Program Director, says this scientific and innovative mindset is critical to foster in students early on.

"We are thrilled to organize these events as part of our iDAPT Young Innovators program because they have a real impact in our communities and on the next generation," she says. "So many skills are developed as a part of these activities; perhaps some of the important being critical thinking, creativity, and confidence, which will be an asset for whichever career paths the students decide to follow."​​

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