By GREGORY ZELLER //
Science research coordinator Lisa Runco has seen many students come through Great Neck’s North Shore Hebrew Academy High School, but never one quite like Scott Soifer.
When it comes to innovation, creativity and an inherent understanding of electrical and mechanical systems, the 15-year-old sophomore is unlike any other past or current NSHA student, according to Runco.
“No. 1 at our school,” the student advisor said, “and his work ethic is amazing.”
Look no further than the young inventor’s habit of disassembling the blender, the radio and just about every other household electronics device, just to see how they work. Or his homemade 3D printer – read that again, if you need to – which helps him produce parts for his various creations.
“Easier than going to Lowe’s or Home Depot or looking all over Amazon and ordering parts from China,” Soifer noted.
The printer – a shape deposition modeling device that, in essence, stacks layers of melted plastic to create objects – played a vital role in the Heat-Free Car, a working title for a device the 10th-grade inventor sometimes calls the Vehicular Heatstroke Prevention System, a “more technical-sounding name.”
Whatever you call it, the VHPS has a noble purpose: to prevent deaths of people and pets resulting from too much time locked in a hot vehicle. Packed with remote sensors that detect movement and accurately gauge internal temperature and carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide levels, the device – which runs on an independent battery that charges when the auto is running – can turn on the air conditioner, open power windows, sound alarms, send messages to private cell phones and even alert 911 if necessary.
While he’s still “fine-tuning the parameters,” as Runco put it, Soifer’s sensor – designed to be installed near a dome light – is already attracting lots of attention. High on the list is an invitation from NASA that will bring Soifer to the 2016 Conrad Spirit of Innovation Challenge, where he and 79 other high-school aged individuals or teams will present inventions to panelists including investors, other innovators and some of the space agency’s top thinkers.
“He’ll be describing his design process, the functionality and how it benefits humanity,” Runco said of the event, set for late April at the Kennedy Space Center in Florida. “It’s actually helping him fine-tune the apparatus, explore different options and statistically analyze his work.”
The student has pitched the VHPS before. He presented it to a panel of judges in February at an event run by LI Science and Engineering Fair – a not-for-profit dedicated to science excellence at Island schools – and has discussed the device many times with friends and family members.
But for the Conrad challenge – named for U.S. astronaut Charles “Pete” Conrad, the third man to walk on the moon – Soifer promises “a special pitch,” and crafting it is helping him sharpen the eventual presentation he’ll make to auto manufacturers, his endgame for the VHPS.
“I’m a little nervous,” he said. “But this will definitely help me get out there so people know what my product is and what it does.”
There’s a lot of road between here and General Motors, including a planned stop this summer at Tufts University in Massachusetts, where Soifer has been invited to participate in an internship program at the university’s Center for Engineering Education and Outreach, run by Chris Rogers, chairman of Tufts’ Mechanical Engineering Department.
Just as the space center visit will help the VHPS find its way, studying at the feet of Rogers will be a personal leg up for Soifer. The professor is a three-time Stanford University graduate who completed an engineering-education sabbatical at Harvard, logged a year of underwater robotics research as a distinguished teacher at Princeton and spent six months in New Zealand on a Fulbright Scholarship.
The student’s ultimate goal: a career as an entrepreneurial innovator, specializing in robotics.
It’s a heady ambition for someone so young, but for Soifer it’s kind of like that homemade 3D printer: “Hard for other people,” the teen noted, “but not for me.”
“I want to have my own firm where I can create things,” Soifer said. “I just want to build. I enjoy robots, but anything that has to do with mechanics, really, I can build it.”