A middle schooler just won $25,000 for inventing a fire-detection device that works faster than the average smoke detector

Shanya Gill posing with an award.
Shanya Gill won $25,000 for her fire-detection device.Courtesy of Society for Science
  • Shanya Gill, 12, won a national science competition for her fire-detection device.

  • The device works quicker than the average smoke detector by using a thermal camera.

  • Gill said she hoped to use the $25,000 prize to take her device to market.

Last year, Shanya Gill and her family were shocked to hear a restaurant behind their house had burned to the ground.

"That was really moving for my family because it was something that we had never really experienced before," Gill, a sixth grader, told Insider.

It inspired her to create a fire-detection device that could identify fires faster than an average smoke detector and send a text to users to alert them of a fire.

Now, she's hoping to take the device to market after judges at the Thermo Fisher Scientific Junior Innovators Challenge awarded her the top prize out of 65,000 middle schoolers.

Gill's fire detector uses thermal imaging rather than smoke detection

Gill's device uses two key components: a thermal camera and a Raspberry Pi, which is a small single-board computer.

"I coded the Raspberry Pi with Python, and the thermal camera gives images to the Raspberry Pi to analyze," Gill said. "The whole purpose of the device is to detect an unattended fire and send a text message to you."

The computer differentiates between thermal readings moving horizontally — such as a person or an animal — and thermal readings traveling vertically, such as smoke rising.

"She's got a really interesting device. I mean, it detects fires earlier than smoke detectors," said Maya Ajmera, the president and CEO of Society for Science, an organizing partner of the competition.

Shanya Gill holding up her device in front of a research poster.
Gill's device has two main components: a thermal camera and a small computer.Courtesy of Society for Science

Gill said that she planned to use the money to take her detector to market — and that any leftover funds would go to charities that help people affected by fires.

"I definitely want to put some in some charities that help people that may have gotten their homes destroyed by fires, because that's really just my whole purpose of this project: for this invention to reach as many people as possible and to also save as many people as possible and rebuild the things that people need," Gill said.

Competition officials said Gill stood out for her innovative project, collaborative spirit, and leadership skills

Sixty-five thousand middle schoolers initially entered the competition and competed regionally. Of those students, some 6,000 were nominated to move to the national competition, and Ajamera said about 2,000 typically went through with applying to compete.

After several rounds of judging, the pool shrinks to 30 top finalists who go on to attend the national science fair.

That means Gill and her fellow finalists were in the top 0.04% of students who competed.

Ajmera told Insider the 30 finalists were judged on two factors: the projects themselves and a series of surprise challenges they completed in preassigned teams.

"During the challenges and throughout the competition, what we understand is she exhibited leadership, collaboration, she exhibited grace, and critical thinking skills," Ajmera told Insider.

Expert practitioners judged the students in the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics fields, Ajmera said.

"She not only had a brilliant project but just carried those leadership and collaboration skills and her challenges and stood out," Ajmera said. "We can't wait to see what her journey looks like over the next 10, 20, 30, 40 years."

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