Peyton Robertson has created a new type of sandbag, to prevent storm flooding in his hometown.

When 12-year-old Peyton Robertson sees a problem, he is going to fix it. So when the young scientist noticed a perennial problem in his hometown of Fort Lauderdale, Florida –flooding during the region’s nasty hurricane season – he set to work building a better sandbag.

Peyton’s sandbag contains an expandable polymer that’s lightweight and easy to transport when dry, but that becomes a dense solution to hold bags firmly in place when it’s wet. He also added a dash of salt – an addition that makes the solution in the bags heavier than approaching seawater. And to eliminate the gaps between sandbags that tend to let some water through, he designed an interlocking fastener system that holds the bags in place as the polymer expands. As the bags dry after the storm, they return to their original state so they can be reused.

The ingenious sandbag (and Peyton’s “commanding delivery, innovative thinking, and sound grasp of the scientific method”) won him first place in the prestigious Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge. He was the youngest winner in the contest’s history. In addition to the $25,000 award and a trip to Costa Rica this summer with the other finalists, he got lots of love from the media, including an adorable spot on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. He’s also filed for an open patent so that others can use and build upon his design.

In fact, he currently has three pending patents. The first, a case to maintain a golf ball’s resting temperature, came to him because he wondered why his golf balls didn’t bounce as far in cold weather. (He was eight at the time.) The second, retractable training wheels, were his creative way to help his sisters learn to ride their bikes. Now bike manufacturers are calling to buy the idea. When Peyton talks about science, his insatiable curiosity about the world around him is evident. He’s not into science for science’s sake – he wants to understand his world and make it better. “I see the world as a really dynamic place that I can change and affect,” he said in his appearance on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. “And I love to use the math and science I’ve learned to help people.”

With so much wild weather afoot, we wanted to hear more from this promising problem solver. We talked with Peyton over email about where to seek inspiration and what’s up next. Our first question:

How did you become interested in science? Here’s Peyton —

I actually didn’t so much become interested in science as a stand-alone subject as I became interested in the science behind other things I was working on and was curious about. For example, if you love baseball, consider what makes a curve ball curve. If you love movies, consider how special effects work. If you are interested in cooking, think about light waves in a microwave.

So what made you decide to take on the sandbag?

The idea to redesign the sandless sandbag came out of my experience living through hurricanes in South Florida. And the idea of expandable polymer has been around for a long time. It’s been used as fake snow and even in other sandless bags. It takes on water and expands when wet. But the key to my design is the addition of salt to the polymer.

You make it sound so easy. Did you experience any frustrations along the way?

Well, when you add salt to expandable polymer, the polymer swells less. So one of the biggest challenges was to understand, test and calculate the swell rate of the polymer when exposed to 10 percent salt so I could pre-fill the bags with the correct amount of polymer and salt.

What’s the next big project you plan to take on?

In Florida, citrus canker causes trees to drop their fruit early. I’ve been wondering whether it might be possible to reduce citrus canker with something similar to a preventative immunization for trees. I’ve also been thinking about whether it might be possible to combine underwater speaker technology, echolocation and an algorithm to help lead whales like those recently trapped here in the Everglades back to open waters.

It’s great that you have such a strong sense of the local issues in your community. Do you have any advice for other kids who want to get involved in problems affecting their areas?

Start by listing all the problems that affect the area in which you live. Odds are those problems will be more interesting to you, provide more local resources to access, and ultimately prove to be issues with a broad global impact.

What’s one thing you know that you wish everyone knew?

Failure is progress and a normal part of the process. Whether it’s science or life, you have to start, fail and just keep pushing. In a football game, time runs out, and a golf match ends after the last hole. But when you are working on something and it doesn’t work, you just extend the game – and give your experiment or your prototype another go.

Read more in TED’s Young Voices series »

Join the conversation! 47 Comments

  1. This is what should be called SOCIAL DESIGN.

  2. […] TED: his scientist has three patents pending. He also happens to be 12. […]

  3. Reblogged this on Jusd.

  4. […] an interview with TED, Robertson advises other kids who want to get involved in solving problems in their areas to start […]

  5. Love this article!

  6. I loved this kid on Ellen! He has a great combination of smarts and personality.

  7. Reblogged this on Word Play Day and commented:
    “Failure is progress and a normal part of the process. Whether it’s science or life, you have to start, fail and just keep pushing.” – Peyton Robertson – And mind you he’s only 12 years old.

  8. […] kid is incredible. A passion for math, science and fixing problems has led the extraordinary Peyton Robertson to create a better sandbag solution in the face of […]

  9. I can’t wait to see what he invents next!

  10. This kid is going places.

  11. Great ideas!

  12. Ingenuity is so great to see in young people.

  13. I’m going to read this article out loud to my 6th grade science class! This is what its all about!

  14. […] This Scientist Has Three Patents Pending. He’s Also 12. […]

  15. Reblogged this on Strouse and commented:
    A great read about Peyton Robertson, the 12 year-old who has 3 patents pending and won the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

  16. What an exceptional kid. His parents must be really proud (and they should be)!

  17. Super smart! Amazing kid!

  18. “Failure is progress and a normal part of the process.”

    I really agree with this.

  19. This kid inspires parents to support their kids in the things that interest them.

  20. He’s a great role model for kids! I hope my sons grow up like him!

  21. This young man is what our future needs.

  22. This kid is going to grow up as a responsible and wise member of our society. I can see that already.

  23. He’s INCREDIBLE!

  24. I can’t believe how smart this kid is! I really look forward to see what he’s going to come up with next!

  25. Keep on inventing, kid!

  26. He’s so cool. I wish I was as smart as him when I was his age. :)

  27. I hope he inspires more kids to be passionate about Science.

  28. Wow! This guy’s amazing!

  29. He proves that with the right mindset, anything can be made possible.

  30. Reblogueó esto en Investigación en Salud Ambiental y Ecotoxicologíay comentado:
    A nuestros alumnos:

    ¿Qué podría motivaros para ser creativos de esta manera?¿Qué deberíamos incluir o quitar del sistema educativo para conseguir alumnos con inquietudes similares a las de este niño?

  31. […] the process.” To read more about Peyton Robertson’s scientific endeavors check out the TED blog posted by Morton Bast on January 13, […]

  32. genius! good job on saving the planet, one invention at a time

  33. congratulations, Peyton! I am in awe of your big ideas!

  34. “Failure is progress and a normal part of the process…” yes, you heard it from a kid.

  35. “commanding delivery, innovative thinking, and sound grasp of the scientific method” – this kid is born to invent

  36. […] Peyton has a passion for learning how things work and helping solve problems. His curiosity has led him to 3 pending patents, numerous projects and winning the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge as the youngest winner ever. He also created retractable training wheels to help his sisters learn to ride their bikes. Now, bike companies want to buy his idea. He won the contest with an idea for better sandbags to help with flooding during hurricanes, and now he’s working on reducing citrus canker to help local fruit growers. Image source; TED Blog. […]

  37. awesome!

  38. we can really learn a lot from him

  39. […] Last fall twelve-year-old Peyton Robertson became the youngest person to win the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge with his ingenious polymer sandbag. The sandbag, which Robertson developed for flood protection, contains an expandable polymer that fills the bag when wet. Robertson designed it to be slightly denser than salt water so the bag can withstand storm surges. Robertson has a total of three inventions with patents pending, including a temperature stabilized golf ball that he designed when he was eight. Robertson describes the polymer sandbag in this video submitted to the Young Scientist Challenge and talks about his inventions in this charmingclip from The Ellen DeGeneres Show and this TED interview. […]

  40. […] “Failure is progress and a normal part of the process. Whether it’s science or life, you have to start, fail and just keep pushing. In a football game, time runs out, and a golf match ends after the last hole. But when you are working on something and it doesn’t work, you just extend the game – and give your experiment or your prototype another go.” (SOURCE: TED Blog) […]

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About Morton Bast

Morton Bast comments, proofreads, fact-checks, moderates, reads, writes and reasons for TED.com. She has a B.A. from Washington University in St. Louis, a thirst for knowledge, and a medium-sized collection of Hello Kitty paraphernalia. She is also a New Yorker, for which there is no known cure.

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