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What teachers can learn from America's top young scientist, 12-year-old Gitanjali Rao

Beth Greenfield
Senior Editor
(Photo via Discovery Education/Andy King; Artwork by Quinn Lemmers for Yahoo Lifestyle)

Earlier this year, Gitanjali Rao, a Colorado 12-year-old, won the title of “America’s top young scientist” — not to mention a $25,000 prize — for designing a device to detect lead in drinking water. Yahoo Lifestyle spoke with the young inventor about her achievements and her plans. At 12 years old, Gitanjali is a member of Generation Z, learn more about her below. 

Name: Gitanjali Rao

Age: 12

Favorite app: Right now it’s Canvas, we use it for school to put together our assignments and submit it all online.

What she does: Seventh-grader and “America’s top young scientist.” Inventor of a device that detects lead in drinking water.  

Three words she’d use to define Gen Z: Emerging. Curious. Revolutionary.

How science became her passion: I always loved learning about activities and solving problems in the world, and science really gave me the opportunity to do that when I was little. My first innovation project was this chair that went underground so we wouldn’t have an overpopulated environment. It didn’t work. [Laughs] It was just something my mom and I and a team did for fun to send into another competition. I was about 6 years old.

Photo: Andy King/Discovery Education

What inspired her to focus on lead detection: I heard about the water crisis in Flint, Mich., and it was immediately one of those problems that was extremely shocking to me, because lead is a material, water is a material, and I never really understood how they came together. I then came across this article that MIT wrote about using these carbon energy sensors to detect hazardous gas in the air. And that’s when I kind of connected those thoughts and ended up with some kind of idea to detect lead in water. I went through two whole months of research and coming up with ideas and doing sketches, and the next three months was carrying out my experiments about how I was going to make it accurate.

Photo: Andy King/Discovery Education

What she wishes older people understood about Gen Z: How important technology is for a teacher to use; a lot still go by textbooks, but technology will be the next thing — virtual reality and artificial intelligence is what the world is going to be based upon. If we don’t take the first step in that, we won’t get anywhere.

Her greatest accomplishment so far: Winning the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge

What she’ll be doing in 10 years: I hope to study genetics and epidemiology at MIT.

What she’ll be doing in 20 years: I hope to somehow just make a big impact on the world, and kind of leave my mark.