Teenagers tend to get a bad rap. No, I don’t mean they listen to bad rap. I mean that they get unfairly judged as lazy, immature, and generally incapable. Just last month, Roger Daltrey of The Who was moaning that kids these days don’t have any movements or sense of purpose, because apparently the only new band he knows is One Direction.
However, if you pay attention, you’ll notice that our young people are capable of amazing things, whether it’s starting entire online revolutions or coming up with better ideas than adults ever have.
In creating this list, I found myself wondering, ‘What are adults even doing anymore?’ This world has a pile of problems that often seem insurmountable. How do we deal with the giant island of trash floating in the ocean? How do we create an affordable car that doesn’t fart out a ton of carbon pollution? How can we help people in poverty get their basic needs met in the face of so much opposition to spending money on welfare programs?
Yet these 16 individuals under 20 have all invented solutions that have somehow eluded those who can legally drink.
Many of these kids were inspired by simple necessity, which we all know is the mother of invention. Others were driven by compassion for loved ones or for strangers they saw suffering needlessly. Some of them were just doing science fair projects, identified a problem, and—without having to worry about patents or profit—worked out the solutions that made the most sense.
Here are the results:
1. Eesha Khare
This 18-year-old from Saratoga, California, was still in high school when she invented a battery that can be charged in 20 seconds. It also lasts 10 times as long as a standard battery. How long does it take your cell phone to charge? Uh huh, that’s what I thought. I’d explain how it works, but I’m not nearly as smart as this teenager.
2. Boyan Slat
This Dutch 19-year-old may be responsible for cleaning up the oceans. Have you heard of Garbage Island? Well, you can kiss it goodbye. (I do not recommend kissing Garbage Island.) Basically, he came up with an idea to anchor 24 sifters to the ocean floor that can collect floating plastic debris while allowing plant and animal matter to float on through. The plastic can then be recycled, and the materials sold to pay for the entire operation.
Boyan Slat giving speech. Photo by TEDx Delft / Flickr.
3. Param Jaggi
While adults were busy taking forever to make a decent and affordable electric car, this Texas native was 17 years old when he figured out how to make your gas-fueled vehicle produce oxygen rather than CO2. It’s a fairly simple device called Algae Mobile, which fits into your tailpipe. The algae inside the tube absorb the exhaust and produce clean oxygen. The only question is, why doesn’t everyone have one yet?
4. Ryan Patterson
The inability to communicate with most hearing people makes life difficult for deaf persons. Knowing this, Colorado-born Ryan invented a glove that translates sign language. It’s simply a golf glove that uses sensors, a radio frequency transmitter, and a microcontroller to interpret hand movements. He was 17. Why didn’t anyone else think of this?
5. Marian Bechtel
When she wasn’t busy being a regular high school student, then-17-year-old Marian was inventing a simple, inexpensive mine detector. This young anti-war activist from Pennsylvania may save a whole lot of lives with her piano-based device, which uses sound waves to find the mines. Abandoned, unlabeled old minefields are still responsible for tens of thousands of deaths each year. Most of these casualties are children.
6. Kelvin Doe
At the age of 13, Kelvin started making his own batteries and generators out of scraps and found materials in Sierra Leone to help light up his neighborhood when electricity was unreliable. You think of batteries and generators as being impossibly complicated, yet Kelvin made them out of soda, acid, and scrap metal bound together by tape. Now 16, he’s the youngest person ever to be invited to the “Visiting Practitioner’s Program” at MIT.
Kelvin Doe at the World Maker Faire in New York City in 2012. Photo by John Dalton / Flickr.
7. Kenneth Shinozuka
Kenneth was only 15 when he created a low-cost device to protect his grandfather, an Alzheimer’s patient, from wandering off. Are you ready? The native Californian made special socks with tiny sensors that go off when feet touch the floor, otherwise known as “Safe Wander.” An alert is then sent to the caregiver’s phone via the corresponding app. It’s so easy.
8. Myla Swallow
Eighteen-year-old Myla designed a simple, cheap system of sterilization that will help to lower the rates of formula-related infant mortality in Africa where clean water is hard to come by. Stainless steel baby bottles are sterilized using a billy can and a pump filter to produce steam. At the same time, Australian Myla founded the Clean Water Initiative to raise awareness of the lack of clean water access among the very poor.
Ugandan mother laying next to her newborn. Photo by World Bank Photo Collection / Flickr.
9. Azza Abdel Hamid Faiad
Need something to do with all that trash collected from the ocean? When this Egyptian student was 16 years old, she discovered a new way of turning plastic into biofuel. This innovation could turn Egypt’s mountains of plastic garbage into $78 million in biofuels every year. Can you imagine how much Garbage Island is worth?
Photo by Shutterstock.
10. Ryan Beck
This youngster from San Diego was only 13 when he invented a football helmet that can reduce the rate of concussions by 55 percent. He was compelled when watching football players crash into each other, and learned that many of them suffer head injuries, which often cause devastating health issues later in life. He tested different kinds of padding and settled on a special type of foam covered in neoprene. Run one in for Ryan, football players.
Photo by Shutterstock.
11. Jack Andraka
Maryland-born Jack Andraka will likely be responsible for saving thousands of lives with his early pancreatic cancer detection tool, which he developed when he was 15. The reason pancreatic cancer has such a high mortality rate is because 85 percent of cases remain undiscovered until they’re in the late stages. The device is currently undergoing clinical trials, and Jack is currently awesome.
Jack Andraka speaking at TEDx QUT. Photo by TEDx QUT / Flickr.
12. Elif Bilgin
Elif from Istanbul, Turkey, was 16 years old when she perfected her technique for turning banana peels into bioplastics. I don’t even know what bioplastics are, let alone how you make them from banana peels. But it’s apparently so simple that you can do it at home. These safer plastics can be used to replace petroleum-based plastics, which have been linked to certain forms of cancer.
13. Arsh Shah Dilbagi
This 16-year-old from Panipat, India, invented a device that allows people who have trouble communicating verbally to convert their breath into letters. Ready to be further impressed? Arsh reports that it takes only tenths of a second to dictate certain letters, making it the fastest AAC device in the world. While AAC devices like the one used by Steven Hawking can cost thousands of dollars, TALK could be sold for under $100.
14. Raquel Redshirt
Growing up in New Mexico’s Navajo Nation, Raquel experienced poverty so extreme that her family and neighbors often couldn’t afford electricity, making it near impossible to cook anything. So at 16, she discovered a way to make solar-powered ovens using the simple materials collected around the area. Working with old tires, aluminum foil, shredded paper, and dirt, she made these usually expensive ovens for the people in her community. Have you built any ovens for your neighbors lately?
Bioplastics from banana peels? Fewer deaths from pancreatic cancer? Cleaner oceans? Why don’t we have any of these things yet? Clearly we’re not giving teenagers enough credit. Maybe if we had been treating our youth with the respect they deserve instead of complaining about “selfie” culture, we’d have flying cars by now!
So I say to all those complaining about “kids these days,” maybe it’s you—yeah, you!—who is ungrateful. Now either invent flying cars or shut up, Roger Daltrey.
Lindsey Weedston is a freelance writer and journalist. Her work can be found on her blog, Not Sorry Feminism, as well as The Fix and The God Show Podcast.