We continue our “3 Things I didn’t Learn in School” series, with Alex Deans, an inventor and entrepreneur, whose novel innovations have earned him top honors at the Canada-Wide Science Fair, the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, and a spot on Maclean’s 2014 list of “Canada’s Future Leaders.”
In today's conversation, Alex shares how he ‘hacked’ into the complicated world of medical technology, by combining a passion for confronting real-world challenges, a curiosity of bat navigation, and some inspired technological creativity. His invention, iAid, helps individuals with visual impairment navigate more independently. Now in his last year of high school, Alex is determined to see his invention benefitting people on a global scale.
Tell us what triggered you to do what you do?
Well, what’s amazing is that I met this blind woman, and she is the inspiration for a journey that’s lasted for over five years now. I was 12 when I first met her downtown, and I was really struck by the difficulty she had navigating. She had been suffering a lot from vision loss. At 12 years old, you feel like you can tackle any problem, and I just knew I wanted to help her. It was an incredible opportunity as young person to help somebody else in the community.
Its our understanding your journey with iAid began as a hobby and you taught yourself how to program. How did you land on iAid?
Well, it started when I was watching a show on how bats navigate using sound. I aimed to replicate nature’s incredible creativity using bat navigation as a model. So the iAid, basically, plays off of that. It maps an environment using sound, and communicates the directions to the destination through a tactile system based on a joystick. I learned a lot about new technologies while working on this project, and I’ve incorporated the complexities of human navigation into the final product.
What have you discovered about your own passion and purpose during this journey?
I’ve realized I have a passion for tackling real-world problems, you know, things that I can really relate to in the community. And, tackling them gives me inspiration and fulfillment which motivates me to continue this work. Seeing the response from people that my ideas have effected, really makes me want to do more. That’s really what I’m going for when I do any of this scientific work.
In a previous interview, you said you weren't really pushed to achieve in competition or in academics, but instead encouraged to go play, explore and make things on your own. How important was this in bringing you to where you are now?
Yeah, my parents always gave me really creative things to do. We played outside with ropes, and used to build tree forts as a little kid! That’s where creativity comes from, you know, being pushed to discover things on my own really helped me learn how to apply creativity to problems that I encounter. Its completely different way of thinking which has opened up a lot of cool opportunities for me to grow.
What were some of the main challenges you faced and how did you work through them?
The hardest part, I think, was encountering adversity. There were people who told me I wasn’t smart enough or old enough. And, as a 12 year old that kind of puts you down a bit, because you think, ‘I can’t do it’ if people who are older and wiser than me are saying, ‘you can’t do it.’ In terms of working through challenges, you overcome them by seeing the impact your success has. I took each challenge I faced and tried to use it as a building block, and sometimes I stumbled over them, but I was able to get over them. That is ultimately what helped me not just in science, but also to become a better person.
Alex, iAid is a really innovative use of technology. But what’s really amazing is that you tinkering with technology produced some groundbreaking developments in assisting people with visual impairment be more confident navigating around. What prompted you to use technological creativity to help others?
Well, we live in the age of technology. I’ve grown up around it, and it’s my go to source to solve problems. Technology is incredibly powerful these days, and by applying it creatively, you can tackle any problem head on, and make progress.
The Academy of Tomorrow's mission is to help cultivate a 'hacker' mindset, which is not a skill set but rather a mindset. Building on three key principles - CURIOSITY, TINKERING and GRIT - as the components to this equation. How do you feel society can do better to build that mindset?
First off, we have to do better to encourage it in schools. And, push kids to experiment by themselves. Kids have a natural curiosity, there is no question about that. If kids are provided with the right resources, they can think about a problem in a completely different way, and sometimes find a more elegant, or better solution to a problem. It’s all about encouraging kids to go out, and discover things for themselves. Let them make mistakes and build on them. That’s ultimately what helps you grow.
What are some things you didn't learn in school? And wish you had?
I wish that school exposed us to some of the bigger problems going on in the community. Maybe, by taking us out in the community to experience the issues for ourselves, because those experiences are what have a lasting impact. School tends to be a very sheltered environment, but when you are out there in the community seeing things first-hand you get a really good sense of what you can do to help. I definitely would have wanted to have that opportunity. I also wish I would have taken computer science in elementary school! That would have helped me, but it was another opportunity for me to learn. Schools now are providing lots of opportunities for kids, so its awesome to see that, too.
What’s next for Alex? With only one semester remaining in his high school career, Alex assures us that completing his diploma is a top priority, so he can attend university. He also plans to continue skiing, painting, and hanging with his little brother. As to the future of iAid, after experiencing the positive responses to his device at the Canadian National Institute for the Blind, Alex is determined to bring the invention to global markets in 2015. After five years of research and development, he is ready.
Finally, we asked him if he had any advice for others wanting to solve problems in new ways and disrupt the way the things are done, his reply, “don’t be afraid to push the boundaries...It’s all about curiosity and risk taking.”