Teen's glove gains international acclaim

Fascination with science leads to communication device for deaf

Only minutes into a youth baseball game many years ago Sherry and Randy Patterson had an early inkling that their son possessed unique talents.

"We registered Ryan to play baseball so he could make friends and learn a sport," said Sister Patterson. "But during the game he became bored standing in the outfield so he stooped down and began drawing designs of robots in the dirt."

Ryan Patterson, 18, of Grand Junction, Colo., shows his winning hand -- a glove that converts American Sign Language to written text. His science project won the Intel Science Talent Search and the top prize of a $100,000 college scholarship on Monday, March 11, 2002, in Washington. (Feature Photo Service)
Ryan Patterson, 18, of Grand Junction, Colo., shows his winning hand -- a glove that converts American Sign Language to written text. His science project won the Intel Science Talent Search and the top prize of a $100,000 college scholarship on Monday, March 11, 2002, in Washington. (Feature Photo Service) Photo: FPS

In the next years, Ryan's inkling to invent led him to become a mastermind of many robotic designs. Now 18 years old, his fascination with science has earned him international recognition for his first-place entry in the Intel Science Talent Search, an award many consider to be the junior Nobel Prize.

He earned this top award for creating a glove that converts the American Sign Language alphabet into written text for others to read on a small screen, enabling the deaf to communicate with others without a sign language interpreter.

He was awarded $100,000 in scholarship money in a presentation in Washington, D.C., March 11.

This award comes on the heels of two other major awards in the past year, namely the Intel International Science and Engineering Fair in May 2001, and the Siemens Westinghouse Science and Technology Competition in December 2001.

Ryan serves as first assistant in the priests quorum of his Grand Junction 11th Ward, Grand Junction Colorado Stake.

From his toddling years, Ryan has been intrigued with anything mechanical or electrical. "When other babies were carrying blankets, we have pictures of Ryan carrying extension cords," said his mother. "He was always taking things apart."

As a third-grader, Ryan grew weary of mopping the kitchen floor so he devised an electric mop with a spinning head. "He was always doing something like that," said Sister Patterson.

"His father is a metal fabricator. Ryan would often put notes or designs in his father's truck requesting him to bring certain materials home or to make something in his welding shop."

It became routine for Sister Patterson to attend parent-teacher conferences in elementary school during which teachers would show assignments that Ryan began, but then showed how he quickly drifted into drawing designs. "He was capable of doing the work, but he loved to draw designs of mechanical things," Sister Patterson said.

"He especially loved robots. I've kept some of the designs he drew of robots when he was 4 and 5 years old. Some are drawn in pencil, others in crayon or paint. Some of his early robots he built I've saved on a shelf in the garage."

As a teenager he created Sleuthbot, a robot capable of detecting bombs or suspicious people. His motivation to build the robot came after the tragedy of Columbine High School and the prospects of his mother, an elementary school teacher, having to re-enter a school building to rescue a child in a fire or hostage situation.

"He's always been a good boy whose desires have been to help people," said Sister Patterson. "His inventions are aimed at improving life."

At the recent international fair, Ryan competed against 1,235 finalists from 43 countries. Many competitors used the resources of their parents to create their projects, whether it was research in a lab or work as a doctor.

Ryan hasn't lived the privileged life, said his mother, describing his diligence in studying and how he spends afternoons working as a computer programmer after school. "He's earned it on his own."

For Ryan, it's also been a matter of faith.

One day as a sophomore in high school, when he had been praying to find a meaningful project for the upcoming science fair, he was eating a hamburger at a fast food restaurant when he noticed a deaf teenager struggling through the convoluted process of using an adult to interpret her order.

"He told me about his interest to create a better means of communication, but he has so many ideas I didn't think anything about it," said Sister Patterson. Several days later Ryan demonstrated his creation to his mother. He had wired nine sensors to a golf glove and connected it to a laptop computer. After hastily teaching himself the sign language alphabet, he programmed the computer to recognize his hand gestures and translate the motions into text on a small screen about the size of a cell phone.

For his invention Ryan won first place in the Western Slope Regional Science Fair. He continued to develop the glove, winning the Seaborg Prize, which included a trip to Sweden for the presentation of Nobel prizes.

Ryan also credits a mentor, John McConnell, for his success. Mr. McConnell was a retired physicist when he was asked by the school district to assist Ryan in the development of his scientific talents. For hours every Saturday Ryan visited Mr. McConnell who taught him and helped with research.

"I'll never see another Ryan Patterson in my life," he was quoted as saying.

"The mentor really made a difference," said Sister Patterson describing John McConnell.

Despite the attention, Ryan maintains a "good perspective," said Bishop G. Lee Eberhart. His project has drawn widespread publicity in magazines, newspapers and national television, earning him the reputation as the "whiz kid."

"He's been steady in his service and always faithful in his assignments, and has prepared himself to serve a mission," said Bishop Eberhart.

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