St. Joseph third-graders win national prize for ‘smart’ swimsuit idea

  • Written by Nathan Whalen
  • Published in Local
As part of the national ExploraVision competition, St. Joseph third-graders Charles Laun, left, Isaac Mesfin, Eli Kim and Billy Fisk had to make a video about their iSuit invention. Photo: Courtesy iSuit video As part of the national ExploraVision competition, St. Joseph third-graders Charles Laun, left, Isaac Mesfin, Eli Kim and Billy Fisk had to make a video about their iSuit invention. Photo: Courtesy iSuit video

SEATTLE – The concept of a swimsuit that morphs into a flotation device with an emergency beacon has won a national first prize and a trip to Washington, D.C., for a team of third-graders at St. Joseph School.

The intelligent swimsuit — dubbed the iSuit — “looks like a normal swimsuit with electronic gadgets in it. When you’re in trouble it inflates,” explained team member Isaac Mesfin, who entered the ExploraVision competition with classmates Charles Laun, Billy Fisk and Eli Kim.

On June 5, the boys, their parents and their teachers will travel to the nation’s capital to receive their top prize in the Primary Level (K-3) division, including a $10,000 savings bond for each team member. They’ll also get to meet Bill Nye the Science Guy and possibly members of Washington state’s congressional delegation.

ExploraVision, organized by Toshiba and the National Science Teachers Association, is an annual science, technology, engineering and mathematics competition for K-12 students. It challenges students — with the help of a teacher — to research current technology and visualize a new technology that may exist in 20 years. This year’s competition drew some 14,000 students from the U.S. and Canada.

The St. Joseph boys began brainstorming ideas in September, considering a shrink ray, an updated iPhone and pills to help with depression, before settling on the iSuit, Mesfin said. The swimsuit was inspired by an actual incident — Charles was swimming in a pool, playing with a friend who inadvertently pushed him underwater. “He didn’t realize it,” Charles said.

The boys spent months researching and developing the idea, using a variety of sources on the web, said Laura Laun, Charles’ mother and the team’s mentor.

“They all took an area to learn about and came back together,” she said.

Charles said he researched sensors and how they can detect when a person is in trouble in the water. Eli said he learned about radio waves and how they could be used to contact smartphones of family members and emergency responders, even if the swimmer is in the middle of the ocean.

Isaac said he researched artificial intelligence, learning how the suit would “decide” to contact lifeguards or inflate. And from research done by the University of Southern Denmark, Billy said, he learned about crystals that can store oxygen, and how heat can release the oxygen and help inflate the iSuit.

Laura Laun noted that another ExploraVision team at St. Joseph (the school had 40 students on 11 teams this year) shared the oxygen crystal information with her team. “They learn from each other,” she said.

The four third-graders wrote a paper demonstrating their understanding of the current technology, how they think it will evolve in the next two decades, and the breakthroughs that need to occur for a project to become a reality, according to the ExploraVision website. They also wrote an explanation of the iSuit design. (See box for a summary of their concept.)

In early March, the team was featured on Q13 News after learning they won the regional competition. Then they had to get back to work — for the national competition they had to develop a website, a video and a prototype suit.

Although the electronics normally would be inside the suit, for the prototype suit they placed them on the outside so the judges could see them,

This is the first national ExploraVision award for a team from St. Joseph, but the school’s teams have won several honorable mentions since the 2015-16 school year, its first year of participation. This year, a team of seventh-graders — Seamus Alspach, Lluvia Osorio and James Hoover — received honorable mention for a project that focused on eliminating post-traumatic stress disorder. Other teams won their awards in 2016, 2017 and 2018.

St. Joseph students in grades 3-6 can participate in an after-school program to prepare for ExploraVision, and middle-schoolers can take an elective course to participate in the competition.

“With the success of this year, we’ve had a lot of interest with other students,” Laura Laun said. 

The iSuit concept

The swimsuit will work by using sensors to understand if you need help, such as if you are panicking or underwater for a long time. If this happens it will inflate and signal for help.

The swimsuit will help people with currents, drowning, sea creatures, and lightning. The suit will understand what is normal or not normal for your body and surroundings by using artificial intelligence (AI).

AI will tell the crystals to release oxygen to inflate the suit and use radio waves to send a message to the parent and lifeguards telling them they need help.

Source: iSuit team website