Seeing the Light


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Sometimes great ideas begin with simply listening. For Ann Makosinski, now 16, her idea began when she found out about a buddy in the Philippines having trouble in school because he didn’t have electricity to be able to study after dark.

Makosinski thought she could literally put the answer into the palm of his hand.

With the invention of her hollow flashlight, which operates through the power of the human body, she was handed first place in the 15-16 age category at the 2013 Google Science Fair, was honored with an appearance on the Tonight Show, and now has a future with seemingly endless possibilities.

Of course, she still had her SATs and finals to take.

Talking to Makosinski not long after the stretch run of her junior year, she’s shocked by what her flashlight has led to. But it’s a little less surprising when you consider her parents’ early encouragement. “I had always been interested in taking things around me and combining them and making them into something better," she says. "When I was small, my parents let me take garbage they weren’t using from around the house and glue things together with my glue gun and make inventions. Of course, they never worked. And my dad would also bring home old printers and computer hard drives that we would take apart.”

Ann Makosinski, Google Science Fair winner,
demonstrating her invention, the body-heat-powered flashlight.

Makosinski was entering science fairs as early as the sixth grade and these events helped transform what she calls a shy girl into someone who seems to feel comfortable telling practically anyone about her work. When asked about the early inventions that led to the flashlight, Makosinski quickly switches gears. She describes a whirlwind of building blocks—the seventh grade project using Peltier tiles to try and power an MP3 player; creating her first flashlight for her ninth grade project, one you could crank. But, still, she was looking for more.

“I wanted something unique where it didn’t have to rely on sun or the wind or where you didn’t have to crank it up or shake it,” she says. “So I decided since I harvested the kinetic energy of humans for the ninth grade project, I would harvest the thermal energy of humans with a flashlight that harvested human body heat. I used the Peltier tiles and heated one side with a palm of my hand or my forehead and cooled the other side with a hollow aluminum tube that allowed for maximum air convection currents to flow through and around the tube. And that would help cool it more.”

Many have touched the device and experienced the surprise of how simple it is. That, she says, may be part of what helped her at fairs, noting that competitors have to take a hard look at how they’d explain a possible entry.

Makosinski admits she’s hard-pressed to pick a favorite moment since the flashlight’s success, but a rival for it has been giving speeches to kids. “I want to inspire people to pursue what they’re interested in,” she says. “To look around them at things to solve.”

What may be difficult for her to solve is choosing her future, and Makosinski says she might be working on this dilemma for a while. “I’m not completely sure what I want to do next,” she says. “There are so many paths for me to take. I’ll probably be studying something in the sciences but even what aspect, I don’t know.”

Makosinski doesn’t claim to have all the answers. But don’t be surprised if she continues to add more light to the world.

Eric Butterman is an independent writer.

I want to inspire people to pursue what they’re interested in. To look around them at things to solve.

Ann Makosinski, Google Science Fair winner

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July 2014

by Eric Butterman, ASME.org