When Kids Think
The open house was held in an unlikely spot, tucked away in a light-industrial section of Alhambra. On the asphalt outside, beyond the tables offering homemade snacks, what resembled a futuristic pinball machine was in fact a desalination apparatus, so arresting in design, yet elegant and efficient in its process, that it evoked wonder as it silently made potable water with only the sun for power.
Inside the building were a variety of presentations, all part of the Jisan Research Institute, the brainchild of Caltech Ph.D. Dr. Sanza Kazadi. Revolutionary discoveries are gestating and springing to life at JRI, born of middle and high school students whom Kazadi has attracted from local campuses. They toil after school, on weekends and during summers on multiyear projects at what he proudly calls his "think tank for kids."
In the lab/shop, a desktop windmill with concave metal blades rotated on a magnetically free-floating axle, touching only at a pinpoint at the top. Abraham, a South Pasadena High senior, explained that unlike most wind turbines, this one has no gears or bands to generate the power, no parts to wear out. Without friction or resistance, a substantially lower amount of wind velocity is needed to turn the blades. A deep exhale would generate power, and the small model on display could be any home's next power source.
"We hold the patent on this technology," Kazadi says. Indeed, the institute holds several patents — held jointly by students, Kazadi and the institute, so everyone profits — and students have presented nearly 50 papers worldwide.
The institute began 15 years ago with grad student Kazadi tutoring kids. Finding them bored or without homework, he began giving them problems to solve. Eventually, he began his tuition-based program, working out of his apartment with his own computer. At first it was all software exploration, but in recent years they've begun creating remarkable hardware as well.
"We live in a country that's going through not just a financial recession, but an intellectual recession," he says. "Fewer and fewer people are going into science. If every school district ... had a JRI-type program attached to it, you would have hundreds of students working on research projects ... because scientists always have more projects than they can ever get to and more questions than they can ever answer.
"Show me a student who's learning calculus as a senior in high school, and I'll show you a student who's three years behind the rest of the world," he continues.
The institute's philosophy is that once the project is assigned, the kids do the work, learning it until they can teach it back to the teacher. From this process have come solutions as diverse as robotic foraging for materials on Mars and refrigeration without electricity. Along the way, the institute's students achieve a level of social maturity far beyond what could be achieved in school.
"One of the most innovative [things] Dr. K. does with his teaching is that, in order to pass from one level to the next levels, you have to teach it before you can pass," said one mom, Nancy Webb, a member of the board of directors. "It gives them not only a solid base that they've learned the material, but they've learned communications skills, leadership skills." Her son Mark, off this year to the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, not only greeted guests and explained the desalination machine but later made an oral presentation to would-be students and parents.
Andy Grosz, a Disney IT director and JRI board member, whose daughter Andrea began at age 13 and is now in med school at Case Western Reserve University, said: "By the time Andrea was making a presentation at university faculty conferences, I was looking at a poised and confident young lady."
The message clearly pleased Dexter Myers Sr., who had brought his children, both enrolled in private schools, for a look-see to supplement their education. "I liked the aspect that the kids had hands-on training here to be able to build science projects and be able to understand how they can relate science to real products," he said.
The first "real product" appeared to be from the floating axle technology: a floating, four-sided, desktop picture frame, the perfect gift for the person who has everything.
While in moments of candor Kazadi may lament how little the institute has boosted his personal and professional standing in the educational and scientific communities, his pride in the institute's accomplishments buoys his spirits. "JRI has had, over the past 15 years, an extraordinary record," he says. "The percentages of students that have gone to great schools ... having attended a graduate program, [having] gone on to extraordinary careers, are second to none." He'll be opening a second campus in Mid-Wilshire this year.
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