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Whiz kid: At 13, Cameron Jones is already a veteran on the science fair circuit

 

Cameron Jones is a curious kid.

Indulging in his curiosity has taken the Portola Valley 13-year-old a long way. In 2013, as the recipient of one of the highest honors given to young scientists, Cameron went all the way to Washington, D.C., (accompanied by his father, Christopher Jones) with his science fair project, a "universal gripper," a robotic hand that can pick up small, delicate or odd-shaped items.

Cameron went to the nation's capital for a week as one of 30 middle school students from around the country who were finalists in the prestigious Broadcom MASTERS program, an international science and engineering competition.

Cameron's award-winning sixth-grade science fair project was an artificial robotic "hand" that could pick up small, delicate or odd-shaped items. He called it a "universal gripper."

The next year, Cameron took his scientific curiosity in a different direction. His 2014 project was a wearable gadget that could "trick your brain into thinking you're warmer than you really are," Cameron says. The device also worked to make wearers feel cooler than their surroundings, he says. "It can adjust your temperature by about 15 degrees. It's most effective at 5 (degrees)," he says.

That project garnered Cameron a first place prize in the state science fair, and Cameron was one of 300 semi-finalists in the Broadcom program last year.

This year, Cameron, now 13, once again won a first place at the state science fair for his latest project — developing a way to infuse fine carbon powder into rubber bands so they can be used to measure biometrics (such as heartbeats or breathing).

He'll find out in mid-August if he is a semi-finalist for the Broadcom competition again and, if he makes it that far, he'll find out if he is a finalist in early September.

In Silicon Valley, young people who excel at the sciences often have parents who are scientists. Cameron does not. His father, Christopher Jones, is in finance and his mother, Barbara Hugli-Jones, is an artist.

Cameron, however, says "science has always been my passion." His grandfather, Doug Jones, who lives near San Diego in Fallbrook, has been an inspiration and mentor to him, Cameron says. When Cameron was 7, Grandfather Jones taught him to program "very simple things," an activity he loved. "You don't have any limits when you're programming," Cameron says.

Over time, however, "my interests have definitely shifted," he says. He was interested in space before programming, he says. "I've not really found an area of science that I like the most," he says.

Each of his science fair entries have used some programming — a controller called Arduino that he programs in the C programming language.

But, he says, "every step of the way is interesting. You learn new things. You fail some of the time — but you have to get over that."

This year's project was also inspired by Cameron's grandfather, who sent him a paper by some Massachusetts Institute of Technology scientists discussing the use of flexible rubber composites to create strain sensors. The process in the paper was complex, and used powerful equipment and hard-to-obtain chemicals. "I tried to improve it and make it cheaper," Cameron says.

In this year's project, Cameron had to get up late at night to take his rubber bands out of a chemical bath. "I set up a sort of lab in the garage," he says, complete with safety equipment. "My favorite thing about the process was to see it come together and work." That moment, he says, was when he saw his modified rubber bands could actually detect movement.

What's next for Cameron, now that he's graduated from eighth grade at Corte Madera? He says he plans to go to Harker School in San Jose. "They have a good record of supporting people in science fairs," he says.

After that, Cameron says he'd like to attend Stanford University because "my dad went there," and "I live very close to it." A Stanford professor let him use Stanford lab equipment for his last project, Cameron says.

As can be expected, Cameron has a lot of fans at Corte Madera, and that includes his eighth-grade core teacher in English and history, Timothy Sato. Mr. Sato says that one of the things he likes the most about Cameron is that "he's dedicated to really pushing himself to understand the world around him."

That exploration, he says, goes far beyond science. "He's able to take his aptitude for science and apply it on a much broader scale," Mr. Sato says. "One of the things that Cameron's been really pushing himself to do is become a stronger writer," he says. "I'm excited to see the work he does."

In fact, Mr. Sato and Cameron have had a running joke, he says, that when Cameron starts up his first company, Mr. Sato wants to invest and sit on its board.

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