Cameron Jones

Broadcom MASTERS finalist Cameron Jones.

Computer scientists, take note: Cameron Jones, a 12-year-old from Portola Valley, Calif., might just figure out the medical conundrum of how to make artificial hands work more like real ones.

His engineering-themed science fair entry — called “We’re Jammin’: Using the Jamming Principal to Construct a Universal Gripper” —  uses a computer-controlled vacuum system to activate an artificial gripper. The vacuum controls the amount of pressure flowing through a latex balloon filled with coffee grounds, which enables the granular material to flow around the object and “jams” them together with enough pressure to pick up an object.

Using a single-board Arduino microcontroller, some valves, a pump and a power circuit, Jones created a new twist on a robotic hand that was capable of “reliably picking up a variety of different sizes, weights and shapes without having any prior information,” he said.

Previously: Broadcom MASTERS Bring the (Science and Engineering) Heat to DC

This week, Jones was one of 30 middle school students who have come from across the country to compete in the 2013 Broadcom MASTERS Finals, a competition that recognizes projects that demonstrate critical thinking skills and expertise in a STEM (science, technology, engineering or math) subject. The finalists, 14 girls and 16 boys, are competing for more than $35,000 in cash and prizes.

The week-long event kicked off with a showcase of their projects at the National Geographic Center, where prestigious judges, members of the press, tourists, and other visitors were given demonstrations and explanations of the projects by the students.

View photos from MASTERS Week in Washington, D.C., on Facebook.

The week will culminate with an awards ceremony tonight at the internationally-renowned Carnegie Institute for Science.  In between, the budding scientists will compete before judges by talking up their interest in their science fair topic, explaining their research methodology and sharing their discoveries.

Some of the other projects being considered this week include:

“Different Temperatures, Different Pitch,” from Michael Becker, 14, Flower Mound, Texas. 

Michael Becker

Broadcom MASTERS finalist Michael Becker.

Becker, an avid member of the Boy Scouts, is also a member of his school’s marching band.  Last year, following a half-time performance that occurred in cold weather, he had a question: Does the air temperature where the marching band is playing impact the instruments’ pitch? It sounded to Becker like the colder the weather, the more likely it would be that his and his band mates’ instruments issued music that was slightly off-pitch. Over several months, he devised an experiment to test his hypothesis. Among his findings:

“A lot depends on the materials that the instruments are made of,” Becker said.  For example, reeds within woodwind instruments and guitar strings appear to be vulnerable to temperature variations. Most notably, the pitch of the trombone grew flat as the temperature fell. Becker said he could use algebraic formulas he developed to predict how sharp or flat an instrument would sound as the air temperature fluctuates up or down.

“Slippery Slope: The Effects of Slope and Remediation Treatments on Post-fire Sedimentation,” from Rebecca Bloomfield, 14, Colorado Springs, Colo.

Rebecca Bloomfield

Broadcom MASTERS finalist Rebecca Bloomfield.

In 2012, Rebecca Bloomfield’s family was forced by flooding to temporarily evacuate their home in a wooded area of Colorado Springs. Officials said they believed that that erosion caused by a huge fire that swept across Waldo Canyon earlier that year led to the flooding that later swamped the community not far from Rebecca’s home.  Fortunately, Rebecca’s family and their home emerged safely but the scary episode got her thinking: Are there new ways to shore up fire-damaged areas that might be better at preventing soil erosion and flooding?

Following the big fire in summer of 2012 in Waldo Canyon, Rebecca had noticed that fire officials had covered the charred soil with straw. “That didn’t seem like the best tactic at all, since the straw just floats on top of water, it doesn’t soak it up or stop it from eroding soil,” Rebecca said. She conducted a series of tests to determine if mulch, logs or possibly even orange peels make better erosion-abatement materials.

She found that the best material for effectively preventing erosion was dependent on the slope of the area being treated.

“The most difficult element of my project was designing a testing method that was both replicable and representative of natural conditions,” she said.

“The Gold-Spotted Oak Boarer,” from Krystal Horton, 11, Menifee, Calif.

Krystal Horton

Broadcom MASTERS finalist Krystal Horton.

Krystal Horton and her family love camping. A few years ago, as they returned from a camping adventure in Southern California, she noticed that they passed many, many trees that appeared to be dying. She next read a story in the local paper describing an invasive beetle that had taken up residence in parts of rural San Diego County — a bug that was slowly but surely deracinating thousands of trees.

After contacting an expert at a local university, she met with the specialist, who encouraged her to investigate.  She underwent training, guided by the university researchers, and then devised an experiment. She observed and counted thousands of trees in search of beetle infestation, tracking her progress using GPS and calculating areas by acre where the infestation was spreading fastest.

“One of the hardest parts of the experiment was actually going up to the trees and checking and examining each and every one,”  she said.

“Designing and Validating Affordable, High Quality PCR Lab Equipment for Developing Nations,” from Austin McCoy, 13, Rochester, Minn.

Austin McCoy

Broadcom MASTERS finalist Austin McCoy.

McCoy, inspired by a talk with a disease specialist that revealed how outbreaks of dengue fever kill people at high rates largely because health officials in those locations cannot afford proper detection gear,  devised a lower-cost diagnostic test for testing DNA for the virus.

He used inexpensive technology to build several prototypes (the first few failed) made from a micro-controller, valves, pumps, scrap insulation and a $4 bucket. Coupled with some custom algorithms, McCoy created an automated, affordable and reliable “thermocycler,” which can help detect the virus in populations and lead to better control of outbreaks.

His nearly-completed device “meets all of the most difficult engineering requirements,” as well as international standards.  Best of all: It can run on solar power or an affordable power-source such as a car battery.

McCoy said he’s interested in careers in bioinformatics because “it involves biology, computer science and information technology” and “could lead to discoveries that save lives.”