Jonah Kohn was trying to play a guitar riff for a friend in a noisy classroom when he put his teeth on the top of the instrument and realized he could hear the strumming despite the din.
That sparked his idea for a science project that garnered top honors in county and state science fairs. This week, it netted him a $25,000 scholarship in the second annual Google Science Fair.
Jonah, 14, created a device that converts sound into tactile vibrations. His goal is to help people with hearing loss experience music better.
The Del Cerro teen, who will be a ninth-grader this fall at the San Diego Jewish Academy, was picked Monday as the winner in the 13- to 14-year-old students’ category, one of five top winners in the competition. Thousands of entries from more than 100 countries were submitted for the contest, and 21 finalists presented their projects to a panel of judges at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View.
Jonah’s project, which he dubbed “good vibrations,” filters sound into frequency ranges that are then applied to different parts of the user’s body — the fingers, the sternum and lower back of the neck — with various outputs.
“For many, perception of music is diminished because they cannot process certain frequencies or other critical elements of musical experience. This experiment seeks to use tactile sound to improve their experience,” he wrote about his project.
Jonah said his project was a success. He tested the device on a dozen people who have hearing loss — six with cochlear implants and six who use hearing aids — along with two people who have normal-range hearing.
He had each of his subjects listen to music on loud speakers to get a baseline rating. He then compared that with their experience listening to different types of music with the device. He was able to show that cochlear implant users younger than 55 had a 93.5 percent improvement in the ratings they gave, while people with hearing aids showed about a 35 percent improvement. Some test subjects also reported better perceptions of melody, beat and song lyrics.
Yariv Kohn said when his son first brought the idea to him a year ago, he didn’t expect it to go anywhere.
“When a 13-year-old says I want to know if I can make deaf people hear music, you want to be encouraging, but of course I thought it would die on the vine,” said Kohn, who owns a headhunting firm. “I thought it was an amazing, clever idea — and I was very skeptical.”
That concept launched “an interesting journey” that included figuring out how to build the device and lining up people to be experiment subjects, Kohn said.
Jonah is about to start his second year at the San Diego Jewish Academy, a private school with about 600 students in Carmel Valley that is becoming known for its science program. Several students there have won prestigious science competitions in recent years.
Source: UT San Diego