One of my absolute favorite annual events is the Royal Society of New Zealand’s Realise the Dream Awards, which acknowledge and celebrate scientific research and development work undertaken by secondary school students. The students are always highly motivated and enthusiastic, the projects are complex and impressive, and the focus is right where it should be — on the students.

The Realise the Dream program is a nationwide competition, and a panel of expert judges narrows the large field of entries to 20 honorees. Those 20 students are brought together for several days of discussions with working scientists, tours of research facilities, and professional networking, culminating in a ceremony hosted by the Governor-General at Government House at which the students receive their plaques and medals. Several of the students are singled out to receive special prizes for being the best of the best.

2012 Realise the Dream cohort with NZ Governor General the Rt. Hon. Jerry Mateparae and program sponsors. Photo credit: US Embassy, Wellington.

With Governor-General H.E. the Rt. Hon. Jerry Mateparae, Lady Janine, the 20 award winners, and other dignitaries at the 2012 Realise the Dream Awards.

I returned from my Washington trip a day early so that I could attend this year’s awards at Government House last Friday. As always, I thoroughly enjoyed learning about the winning projects and talking with the students, the Governor General, and Royal Society Chief Executive Dr. Di McCarthy. A new twist this year was that I was on the program, to present one of the top prizes, the inaugural American Ambassador Outstanding Award. 

Beginning this year, the new award will enable an aspiring Kiwi scientist or engineer to attend the annual Intel International Science & Engineering Fair (Intel ISEF), the largest pre-university science competition in the world with more than 1,500 high school students from 80 countries and territories. The next  Intel ISEF will be held in Phoenix, Arizona in May 2013 and promises to be an extraordinary experience.

INTEL ISEF is the world’s premier science and technology competition for secondary students.

A few of the excited winners at last year’s Intel ISEF.

It was difficult choosing the first American Ambassador Outstanding Award winner from among the 20 honorees. All of the students had compelling, complex, highly interesting projects, but only one person can get the big prize. Fortunately, a particular project stuck out. And so the award went to …

… Sohail Abdulla of Mount Roskill Grammar School in Auckland. Motivated by a desire to help his overworked family with the chore of washing the outside windows at home, Sohail designed and built a glass-cleaning robot that climbs up windows. Really.

Me and Sohail after the award ceremony. Photo credit US Embassy, Wellington.

With Sohail at the award ceremony.

The project is a serious piece of technology. Mechatronic in the true sense of the word, it includes mechanical, electrical, and computer technologies. Sohail chose a vertical and horizontal arm concept that he saw as both elegantly simple and functional, and that would keep the device small and light. The heart of the machine is a Festo 10 vacuum generator that provides the suction needed to hold the robot in place as it moves up and down a window.

Sohail is already working to improve his cleaner with expected upgrades to include faster movement, a graphic LCD display, ultrasonic sensors, and sensors to measure water pressure, vacuum pressure, and other critical systems of the device. For more information about the robot and to see it in action, take a look at Sohail’s video below:

 I very much look forward to staying in touch with Sohail as he refines his robot and prepares for his trip to Phoenix next year. Based on all I’ve seen and heard, I know that he will make full use of (and thoroughly enjoy) the experience.

Hearty congratulations not only to Sohail but to all of the 2012 Realise the Dream participants, and big thanks to all of the parents and teachers who nurtured and supported the award winners’ interest in science and technology. Given their importance, these are the kinds of events that we should be holding in packed stadiums with television coverage. I hope to see you at next year’s event.