UPDATE: Science team winners from Nablus meet with UN Secretary General

(NEW YORK, 18 May 2010)  – Three Palestinian girls from Nablus met with United Nations Secretary General Ban Ki-Moon Tuesday in New York to discuss their participation in a global science fair in California last week.

The three girls, Aseel Abu Aleil, Aseel Alshaar and Noor Alarada, earned the “special award in applied electronics” out of 1,500 finalists in last week’s Intel International Science and Engineering Fair, considered the largest pre-college science fair in the world, bringing together “young geniuses” as the Secretary-General called the girls, Nobel Laureates, and other leading scientific thinkers and future employers.

The girls, from a United Nations Relief and Works Agency school in Aska Refugee Camp in Nablus, made history by winning a top spot at an international science fair in Silicon Valley for a revolutionary walking cane for the blind, which they demonstrated today for the secretary general.

“This is a story about brain power not fire power. You are not only helping the blind, but helping the world to see,” Mr. Ban told the girls during their meeting at UN Headquarters. “I am very impressed by your brilliant idea. This is the truth that I repeat every day. By empowering women, we can achieve anything in the world,” the Secretary-General added.

Unlike other electronic canes that send an infrared signal forward, the girls’ invention has a “seeing” sensor below that beeps when the surface changes, such as near stairs, holes or water, up to 30 inches away. The girls designed the cane with $200 in materials.

“How does it make sound?” Mr. Ban asked while trying out the walking stick – a three-foot hollow piece of wood with a comfortable handle, covered with reflective orange strips, and wired inside with a sensor.

Mr. Ban brought the cane near the door – it beeped. He then ran the bottom of the cane against his board room table. At the edge, the cane beeped indicating there was no ground below it.

The girls came up with the idea after watching their relatives struggle on the changing terrain in the refugee camp. It was then perfected with input from organizations that work with visually impaired people, and from the girls’ science and technology teacher, Jamilah Khaled.

The girls’ invention was selected as one of three finalists from among 56 projects at the Palestine Science and Technology Exhibition to participate at the Intel ISEF.

“These students show the enormous potential of Palestinian girls and boys. UNRWA in its education programs want to bring this out. It makes me wonder what we could achieve if our education system were not in the midst of a cash crisis,” said Margot Ellis, UNRWA deputy commissioner-general.

The girls returned to the West Bank Tuesday, each with a $250 prize, and they plan to “have a big party,” eat Palestinian food, see their parents and sleep, following a whirlwind nine-day visit to the United States, that included seeing the Statue of Liberty and Times Square in New York.

“We are so grateful to everyone for helping us,” student Aseel Alshaar said.

Moments later, the international science award winners were back to being regular teenagers, taking photos of themselves with the artwork on exhibit at the UN Headquarters and talking about shopping.

As of now, there are no plans to mass produce the walking stick, but the girls would like to see that happen and to continue their science education. Aseel Alshaar plans to be a genetic engineer; Noor Alarada, a cancer researcher and Aseel Abu Aleil a professor of medicine.

~ UNRWA press release

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