The Gloria Barron Prize for Young Heroes recently announced its 2019 cohort of Barron Prize winners with two Indian American teens – Neil Deshmukh and Maanasa Mendu – named among the honorees.

Deshmukh, 16, of Pennsylvania, was named a winner for his creation PlantumAI.

He created the app to help farmers in developing countries identify and treat crop disease. His free app allows farmers to maximize yields, reduce the need for toxic pesticides, and ensure a safe supply of food and water.

It makes use of Artificial Intelligence technology and crowdsourced data to allow farmers to process crop information easily, taking a picture of the plant with one snap of their phone’s camera. The app runs completely offline so that any farmer can use it, even in remote areas.

Deshmukh, according to his bio, was inspired during a 2016 trip to India where he visited the farm where his grandfather was working. He learned that farmers are struggling due to erratic weather brought on by rapid changes in the climate. He also realized that farmers were spraying their crops with a multitude of pesticides in an effort to eliminate any chance of disease.

The pesticides were ending up everywhere, including in the river – the water supply for many people. Convinced that technology could help, Deshmukh spent the next year developing his app. He returned to India for field testing and secured a partnership with plant pathologists at Akola Agriculture University, who agreed to help farmers use the app.

So far, they have analyzed more than 1,000 crop disease instances. Deshmukh continues to finetune his app, which is currently helping farmers across 12 villages address problems using fewer pesticides.

“My dream is to change the world using technology – to make it better for people everywhere, in every class of life,” he said on the Barron Prize website. “I want to make a difference.”

Mendu, 16, of Ohio, was named a winner for her HARVEST invention.

She invented HARVEST, an inexpensive and globally applicable renewable energy device. Her most recent design is constructed primarily of recycled materials costing less than $5.

It can power a 15-watt LED bulb after just three hours of “charging.” HARVEST consists of energy harvesting “leaves” that produce an electrical charge when bent by wind or precipitation, or when exposed to sunlight. Her invention makes use of the piezoelectric effect – the ability of certain materials like quartz crystals to produce an electrical charge when applied with mechanical stress. 

Her device has its roots in rural India, where on a trip to visit family, she encountered daily electrical blackouts. She was also reminded that many families there rely on dangerous kerosene lamps. She set out to change that. A lover of all things STEM, she worked for three years to create her current iteration, designing a dozen different prototypes and conducting 1,200 trials.

Named America’s Top Young Scientist in 2016 as winner of the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, Mendu gained a platform for promoting renewable energy and empowering students in STEM.

She has spoken to nearly 7,000 people around the world. Additionally, she has used a portion of her science competition earnings to help start the Maruthi Foundation in India, which provides scholarships and other educational opportunities.

She is currently working to enhance HARVEST’s patent-pending design with the goal of making it available worldwide as a Do-It-Yourself kit.

“I’ve learned that the path to instituting change is paved with failures and unexpected successes,” she said. “I’ve also learned that you’re never too young or too old or too inexperienced to see a problem in the world and try to solve it.”

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