Florida scientist, 12, wows Obama with ‘sandless sandbag’

Note from IMACS: Peyton Robertson, the subject of the article below, is a long-time IMACS student, having taken IMACS classes since he was in first grade. His mom says that “IMACS fills in many of the gaps that exist in his school-based math curriculum and has given him a deeper understanding of the math that he has learned independently.”

By William E. Gibson
Washington Bureau

IMACS student, Peyton Robertson, won the 2013 Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

WASHINGTON – Peyton Robertson, a 12-year-old budding scientist from Fort Lauderdale, wowed President Barack Obama on Tuesday with a timely invention: a lightweight “sandless sandbag” designed to hold back salt-water flooding and rising seas.

Clearly impressed, Obama told a distinguished crowd at the White House Science Fair: “If you can buy stock in Peyton, you should do so now.”

Peyton, already honored as a top young scientist in national competitions, has made the rounds of TV news and talk shows. He came to the White House with an exhibit of his “sandbag” and another invention, retractable training wheels with handlebar controls. “So Dad doesn’t have to get out the screwdriver,” Obama noted.

“It just gives you a sense of the kind of inquisitiveness and ingenuity that a young man might have,” the president said. Peyton’s inventions were exhibited along with 26 other projects at the fair. It was a perfect backdrop for Obama to encourage girls and boys to develop skills in science, technology, engineering and math. “I love this event,” he said.

The president used the occasion to announce a $35 million teacher-training grant competition, a national mentoring initiative and expansion of the math and science portion of AmeriCorps this summer to teach low-income students.

But the spotlight Tuesday was on innovative students such as Peyton, who confronted the major problem of storm surges in his home state, the most vulnerable to global warming. Fort Lauderdale and other low-lying communities in Florida have become national models for adapting to rising seas that erode beaches and threaten homes, streets and drinking-water systems.

“I got to show him my project, and he definitely seemed impressed,” Peyton said after meeting with Obama. “The retractable training wheels he thought would be good for kids’ toys. And he thought the sandbags would be helpful for emergency management and things like that.”

Peyton, who is taking online middle-school courses through Stanford University, noticed that the usual sandbags are heavy, hard to move and prone to leak. So he designed a prototype that is light and reusable. It is stuffed with salt and polymers – an expandable synthetic material – that when dry weighs only 4 pounds and when wet expands to prevent saltwater from seeping in.

Peyton said he already has talked with Broward County emergency managers about using his invention. “I will definitely continue working with them and maybe apply [the sandbags] – and find a way to distribute them – next time we see a major flood,” he said.

“I don’t want to get into a political thing, but I definitely feel like this [rising seas] is happening. And I feel like this definitely would be applicable if we get into that kind of situation. Florida will be the first one hit.”

This article originally published in Sun Sentinel on May 28, 2014 and has been republished with permission.