Milken students win first high school X PRIZE

Milken Community High School students joined the space race this week when two seniors won the first-ever X PRIZE competition for high schoolers. On Sunday, Michael Hakimi and Talia Nour-Omid took home the first Pete Conrad Spirit of Innovation Award for their concept of developing bio-monitoring sunglasses to keep space travelers healthy during civilian spaceflight. The Conrad Award, named for the third man to walk on the moon, is sponsored by the same foundation that awarded Burt Rutan and his SpaceShipOne $10 million in 2004 for becoming the first privately developed rocket to carry humans to space.

The X PRIZE foundation challenged students to “develop a new, innovative concept to benefit the personal spaceflight industry within the next 50 years.” Hakimi and Nour-Omid developed a business plan, graphic model and technical paper on goggles that would non-invasively monitor and project a space traveler’s vital signs during flight. While NASA astronauts generally are wired to numerous monitoring systems, such machinery is too weighty and expensive to be practical for commercial spaceflight.

Hakimi and Nour-Omid’s mock prototype and video display won the most votes from the tens of thousands of attendees at the Wirefly X PRIZE Cup and Holloman Air & Space Expo in New Mexico, where the team was among 10 finalists from across the country. The team takes home a $5,000 prize, and will have their design and trophy displayed at NASA headquarters in Washington, D.C. A traveling display and trophy will make stops at science centers across the world, and Hakimi and Nour-Omid will get a trophy to take home as well.

“It’s a big deal for the school, and we’re happy we can bring it back to the school and bring pride to the Jewish community in Los Angeles, to let everyone know that there are Jews out there who want to benefit society through space, or business or whatever means possible,” said Hakimi, a Bel Air resident who, like Nour-Omid, has been at Stephen S. Wise schools since the elementary grades.

The award was presented by Nancy Conrad, wife of the late Apollo astronaut Pete Conrad and creator of the prize, and Erik Lindbergh, great-grandson of Charles Lindbergh and designer and sculptor of the first prize trophy.

“For Talia and Michael to be recognized as the first winners of such a prestigious science and innovation award shows us that the work we are doing here may contribute to the changing landscape of our world,” Milken head of school Rennie Wrubel said.

Roger Kassebaum, director of Milken’s Mitchell Academy for Science and Technology, alerted his students to the opportunity in late August, and Hakimi and Nour-Omid, along with one other team, were able to submit their entry by the early September deadline.

The other team, sophomore Nathan Schloss and junior Jonathan Hekmat, developed a plan to allow people on earth to rent time on remote-controlled photographic equipment aboard the spacecraft. Schloss and Hekmat accompanied the team to New Mexico, and Hakimi says they were invaluable in setting up the technical display that attendees judged. Hekmat built the booth, while Schloss — who Kassebaum calls a computer genius — got the display working.

The goggles were hooked up to a temperature monitor and other monitors that simulated measurable vital signs, such as blood pressure, red blood cell count, blood sugar level and pulse. Those signs appeared on virtual-reality-type goggles, as well as on television monitors.

“I think these glasses might have a market, and if someone takes the time someone can make a profit off of these,” Hakimi said, noting they could be useful in space as well as on earth, such as when people leave hospitals.

Kassebaum and Hakimi are looking into legally protecting the idea, even though Hakimi says the necessary technology is in development now and probably won’t be marketable for about 15 years.

Kassebaum believes the students were ready to move so quickly because as members of the Mitchell Academy for Science and Technology, founded at Milken in 2003, they conduct a two-year research project with local universities and professors. Some students have had papers published and several have placed at other science competitions, such as the Intel Talent Search, a young epidemiologists competition and an Israeli physics competition.

Nour-Omid herself placed first in a regional civil engineering competition. Her winning design, a bridge constructed of one pound of unbroken Popsicle sticks and white glue, withstood pressure of 1,060 pounds.

“I try to remove any hurdles for anyone who has a special interest in science,” Kassebaum said.

Through the Mitchell Academy, Nour-Omid is working on cancer research with a lab at UC San Diego, and Hakimi has a paper about to be published on the economic impact of international terrorism on the Dow Jones.

The Conrad Award is the first X PRIZE for high schoolers.

Team Gad Astro from Northbrook, Ill., won the $2,500 second place award with their concept of a self-healing material that would rapidly fix any punctures, maintaining safety in space. Team Penguin Education from Friendswood, Tex., won the $1,500 third place award with their idea for a company that works with private and public schools to provide a high level of space education.

The X PRIZE Foundation is an educational nonprofit institute whose mission is to create radical breakthroughs for the benefit of humanity. In 2004, the foundation awarded Burt Rutan and Microsoft co-founder Paul Allen the $10 million Ansari X PRIZE for the world’s first private vehicle to travel to space twice in two weeks. The foundation has since expanded its mission beyond space exploration to offer new prizes for breakthroughs in the areas of life improvement, equity of opportunity and sustainability. Last year the X PRIZE Foundation announced the $10 million Archon X PRIZE for genomics, which will reward the first private effort to map 100 human genomes in 10 days. It is also developing a prize for a super-efficient, mass-producible car.

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