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Kilmer 8th graders head to national competition with allergy invention idea

Wednesday - 4/3/2013, 4:22am  ET

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Kilmer Middle School principal Douglas Tyson stands between 8th graders Pallavi Bhave (left) and Joyce Tian. The girls' entry in the ExploraVision science and technology competition won a regional award. Each of the girls won a Toshiba HD camcorder and their school won a Toshiba laptop. (WTOP/Michelle Basch)

Michelle Basch, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Imagine a gadget that people with food allergies could use to make sure the meal they're about to eat won't make them sick.

That idea just won two local middle school students an exciting award and put them in the running to win a national competition.

"Many people in my family are allergic to stuff," says 14-year-old Pallavi Bhave.

"Everyone on my mom's side has some allergies like wheat, dairy products, soy, peanuts," she says.

That's why Bhave and Joyce Tian, 8th graders at Joyce Kilmer Middle School in Vienna, Va., decided to design a Food Allergen Detector for the ExploraVision science and technology competition.

The competition, which is in its 21st year, challenges students in grades K through 12 to come up with inventions or technology that could exist 20 years from now.

Many students innovate to try to solve problems that exist in today's world.

The gadget that the Kilmer Middle School team designed takes a technique that already exists and applies it in a new way.

"It uses Raman spectroscopy, which is a method where an invisible UV laser beam is pointed at the food sample. And then in that method, a small percentage of the light shifts in frequency and the plot of the shifted light versus the frequency is known as the Raman spectrum and is unique to each substance," Bhave says.

The detector would use a database of 50 common food allergens to identify them once the laser is turned on.

Bhave says the device would be hand-held and easy to use.

"It's 5 inches tall, 0.5 inches thick and 2 inches wide. We want it to be a touch screen like an iPhone, because everyone uses an iPhone these days."

More than 5,200 teams of students from the U.S. and Canada entered this year's ExploraVision competition, and the team from Kilmer Middle School is one of just 24 to win regional awards.

The ExploraVision competition is organized by the National Science Teachers Association and underwritten by Toshiba.

Bhave and Tian were awarded Toshiba HD camcorders, and they won a Toshiba laptop for their school.

Their entry now moves on to national competition, where each could win $10,000 in savings bonds.

Asked what she wants to be when she grows up, Bhave had a bunch of answers.

"At first it was an astronaut, then at one point it was a doctor, but right now it's a genetic engineer."

Fairfax County Public Schools were well represented in the competition.

Pooja Chandrashekar and Aishwarya Nugooru of Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in the Alexandria area of Fairfax County won the regional award for grades 10 through 12.

And Lake Braddock Secondary School in Burke, Va., racked up the most eligible entries in the competition.

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