A Young Engineer Visits SparkFun

Sam Berrada dropped by to show off the sign language to speech system he designed. Did we mention he's in the 8th grade?

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We recently had a celebrity visit us at SparkFun. Sam Berrada, an 8th grader from Pleasant View, Colorado - a small town on the western slope of the Rockies - had just won multiple awards, including First Place in Engineering (Junior Division) at the Colorado State Science Fair, for his project: The Future of Sign Language Translation and Universal Digital Control. He stopped by SparkFun after the awards ceremony to show us his creation.

Sam’s project translates sign language into spoken English. It’s divided into two parts: An Arduino-powered glove uses flex sensors to measure finger positions, and an accelerometer to measure arm angle (Sam tells us that without this extra measurement, several letters could easily be confused with each other). The raw measurements are sent wirelessly to a base station via XBee. The PIC-powered base station receives the data from the glove, displays the individual finger positions on a LED matrix, determines what letter is being signed (using “a LOT of code” says Sam), and then both speaks the letter using a SpeakJet chip, and displays the text on an LCD.

We’ve seen projects like this before, but Sam’s was particularly impressive, especially given his age (did we mention he’s in the 8th grade?). Sam says he’s been building electronic projects for years, and has a fondness for robotics. He was inspired to build this project after interacting with a deaf employee at his school, and wanted to create something that would help the hard of hearing more easily communicate.

After winning awards for his project at regional and state levels, Sam has been invited to enter the nationwide Broadcom MASTERS Competition (Math / Applied Science / Technology / Engineering Rising Stars) this summer. We wish him luck, and are sure we’ll be seeing many more creations from this talented engineer in the future!

Comments 71 comments

  • another-dave / about 13 years ago / 5

    kid's got some pretty deep pockets for an 8th grader! I'm counting at least 283 clams. When I see things that complex that cost that much I get suspicious of "parental guidance". I've been to science fairs and asked the kids pretty simple questions about their high tech projects like why they made the decision to do "that" rather than "the other thing" at this point in the development, and get the deer in the headlights look, and a canned recitation of the project.
    If a student with a microcontroller based project can't make a minor change to the source, compile it and load the result into the chip, splits an atom, clones their pet or decodes the genome of broccoli I have to wonder if this hasn't become a battle between parents.

    • MikeGrusin / about 13 years ago * / 3

      Absolutely. While Sam was visiting, he excitedly talked shop with us, and we had a blast talking with him. He described his entire project down to the smallest detail, and we had a long discussion about his design process, what worked, what didn't, what he might do differently next time, etc. His parents are very supportive, which was wonderful to see. But engineering is clearly Sam's passion (as it is for us at SFE), and it was inspiring to see someone this young tackle such a complex project so successfully.

      • another-dave / about 13 years ago / 3

        I don't mean to belittle Sam. But I did electronics R&D testing for a living so I have a sense of methodology as to how developments progress and are documented. I recently attended a high school regional state science fair that I divide into 3 groups: goofy projects that scream "my science teacher is incompetent", methodically and well documented projects that may not be earth shattering but show the creator's promise and a high schools limitations, and the giant leap of knowledge from the beginning point to the end by kids who can't even setup up their instruments again if you hit the 'reset to defaults' button on their o'scope (w/ UofXX property sticker)
        see http://www.siemens-foundation.org/en/competition.htm
        A high school sophomore whos project is "Optimization of Platinum Nanoparticles for Proton Exchange Membrane Fuel Cells Using Pulse Electrochemical Deposition"? Come on!
        how can real kids think up and execute projects that can compete with this industry sponsored PR?

        • I see where you're coming from, and believe me, I had similar thoughts about certain projects at the state fair. My project may seem a bit ridiculous, being pulled off by an 8th grader in the middle of nowhere, but it wasn't too difficult when you boil it down to the basics. As for the money, the project was hovering around the $100 range, which I could've easily gotten for myself if necessary (I gradually built up parts over the years). A majority of the project lies in the code, which as you would imagine, is free. If you still have doubts, I understand, but to clarify on how "legitimate" this project is, I can confirm on doing 99% of the work involved, including the display board.

          • another-dave / about 13 years ago / 1

            congrats, you'll find electronics is more fun than a barrel of monkeys. microcontrollers and solid state sensors open up creative opportunities like never before. Low cost (oshonsoft) and free (winAVR) development software are available. And of course, sparkfun helps reverse the trend toward legless packages (evil!) with their plethora of great breakout board mounted chips.

        • I know the feeling, dave. My highschool made a big deal about the Intel Research Competition (same as Siemens' thing) - gave people class credit for it and everything... not that it didn't take a lot of work by the kids, but that was in terms of writing about what their "mentors" did, while the kids themselves just cleaned test tubes at the lab.
          tl;dr average kids falsely taking credit for advanced work is common at these sorts of competitions
          But it's good to hear this kid knew what he was talking about, wish I had more friends like him back at that age.

    • MattQ / about 13 years ago / 2

      If parents are buying microcontrollers for their kids instead of video games, they're doing something right. And yeah, kids often make design choices on a whim and can't justify it. I was listening to a radio interview with a high school program that sent students to the Maker Fair. A major theme was don't plan it out, and see what happens. They're high schoolers (or in this case, jr. high schoolers), not engineers. Well done, kid.

      • Majik Sheff / about 13 years ago / 1

        Agreed. If my 15-year-old kids came to me with a $300 shopping list from SFE and a plan of this scale, I'd have a hard time finding my credit card through the tears of pride.

        • Young Maker / about 13 years ago / 2

          I wish my father talked like this! He says pay for it yourself, which I guess is good too. but it makes making things hard & im 15, and no one in my family knows what the hell im talking about

          • Erik-Sparkfun / about 13 years ago / 1

            Well, if it makes you feel any better, a vast majority of parents in the world can't afford to pay for their kids in that kind of fashion, either. But at 15 there should be plenty of opportunity for you to make money on the side, especially in the summer. Sure you may not be able to find an 8 to 5 job anywhere, but mowing lawns/weeding and similar tasks is something that neighbors and family friends are always in need of. It might suck and not pay well, but it's still money, and those kinds of things will make you appreciate your projects far more than just being given the hardware.

          • I hear ya! It's been over 3 years since I built my first tesla coil, and I'm still trying to explain it to my dad, let alone the rest of my family. And lets not even get started on microcontrollers...

            • Yeah. NO ONE in my family EVER really understands what I'm talking about. And sometimes it's because they want to know how my Arduino is making the speaker vibrate at the right freq. and then I don't completely understand that!

            • Member #94219 / about 13 years ago / 1

              Haha Man I know that feeling well. Ive been building coils for about 3 years now and no one ever understands when you try to explain it to them hehe.

            • Well my dad was an electronics major, but still has no idea what i am taling about

        • MoriFi / about 13 years ago / 1

          Haha if only my parents would have given me that much money, but I had to pay for my own and I have had a couple of $300 orders.

    • Erik-Sparkfun / about 13 years ago / 1

      I definitely see what you're saying, but what made this kid extra impressive is that he actually knew what he was talking about. He shared a lot of thoughts and insight and made several of us feel bad about what we were doing at his age.

      • MattTheGeek / about 13 years ago / 1

        He's not the only one who know what he's talking about ;D

      • another-dave / about 13 years ago / 1

        well I hope you donated some cool stuff. I know you must be dying to give away one of those MSO-19 usb o'scope/logic analyzers to a bright kid ;-)

  • Member #225224 / about 13 years ago / 4

    I'm Sam's Dad and I would like to confirm that Sam did 99.9% of the work himself. All my wife and I did was provide financial support, encouragement, and a little push (figuratively speaking!) to get the project completed before the science fair. I must admit, I helped him glue some of the printouts on the display board but I had absolutely nothing to do with the content or any other aspects of the project. My (and my wife's) knowledge of electronics and computer programming is close to zero. Sam learned electronics and C programming on his own. He has shown interest in science and engineering since an early age. In 2009, he won first place for engineering at the regional science fair and 3rd at the State fair for his project "the laser car". He did a different and more complicated project in 2010 but he couldn't finish it in time for the science fair. His 2011 project is different from the previous two. Thank you Sparkfun for providing a forum as well as resources for budding scientists and engineers.

    • DeanB / about 13 years ago / 1

      Good work, Sam's Dad & Mom - providing fertile ground for this young mind, pockets ;-), and the well-timed nudge when needed, etc. The Lord knows I've needed one from time to time! -DeanB

    • BBV / about 13 years ago / 1

      Awesome project, awesome Family.

  • DeanB / about 13 years ago / 4

    Way to go, Sam! Never mind the Nattering Naybobs of Negativism (see above). You keep digging into your parent's pockets (you're allowed, you're in 8th grade!), and keep doing cool stuff like this - and the world will be a better place. Great ingenuity! -DeanB
    PS - I could use some help on a project! ;-)

  • Davidjh / about 13 years ago / 3

    This may be a totally off the wall idea, and may come across as another "oh, great, another "fund raiser", but I'm going to throw it out anyway. Sparkfun hits a special chord with all of us, because it promotes the fun and creativity of electronics for everybody. It was founded on the principle that you CAN do it and make it, if you just have the right resources available. How about a "Sparkfun Young Inventor's Fund". You have a product number, that people can contribute, whatever amount is a reasonable range. If Sparkfun is willing to match in kind with funds or supplies, great--otherwise, this community funds it. A young inventor (yes, they should provide some proof of age) submits an idea for a project. The community votes on it, and whoever wins, gets X amount of funds or parts to make it happen. The only other provisio is that the inventor has to keep us up on his progress. Maybe it's a crazy idea, but, hey, there it is. :)

    • CJ_arduino / about 13 years ago / 1

      That would really be cool! I had to work at a science camp part of this summer to fund my projects, but a lot of kids will probably not be as lucky finding a job. Great idea.

    • BradC / about 13 years ago / 1

      I think this is a fantastic idea!

  • MattTheGeek / about 13 years ago / 2

    I will applaud the engineering and design, However i have a few questions.
    * Why did you not design a PCB for this project?
    * Why didn't you integrate the whole system on to the hand?
    * Why is the base station based on a PIC, while the hand subsystem is based on the Arduino platform?
    * Why was a Xbee chosen as the communication media between the base and the hand?
    * Can we get documentation to the project?
    I wish other young engineers like myself and others here can be recognized...

    • sgrace / about 13 years ago / 3

      I bet I can answer a few of those questions.
      1) Knowledge/skill level of using near industry based CAD programs is WAY out of scope of what he was trying to achieve.
      2) Though a nice idea, it means that he would have to base it off a PCB to get it to work properly. Again, out of scope.
      3) PIC doesn't have defined pins like the Atmel chips. This allows for more customization.
      4) Why re-invent the wheel when code and designs have already been published on the Internet?
      5) Yes, I agree. Documentation is a key point in any project.
      Other young aspiring engineers don't need to seek glory. Glory will come to them in more ways than one.
      An example is, when you become an engineer for a company, you are making a difference, maybe one that impacts millions of people, but you will not get direct recognition for it.

    • BBV / about 13 years ago / 2

      This is a proof of concept project and a darn impressive one at that.
      Our projects start on breadboards long before we design the first PCB.
      I hope Sam and his family will be flooded with offers for seed money.
      Never stop doing what you are already doing so well.

    • SomeGuy123 / about 13 years ago / 2

      Instead of glory (As sgrace put it), I prefer to gather contacts. The goal of every project I do is to gain contacts.

  • CHaskins / about 13 years ago / 2

    any videos? I hope you suggested Batchpcb.com.

    • sephers / about 13 years ago / 1

      I hope you didn't! The batchpcb website hasn't worked since January, international customers can't place orders and batchpcb don't seem to care.

  • patrickmccb / about 13 years ago / 2

    I know the feeling of creating something all by yourself to enter into a science fair. I am an upcoming senior in high school and have competed in a few science fairs. I first entered in the 10th grade with a maze solving robot into the county science and engineering fair. I was feeling pretty confident. I had built everything my self and programmed it all. I was not planning on what I saw when I arrived. It was a battle of the parents. You could tell some of them were rather attached and proud of the projects more than the kids presenting them. Many of the students were getting last minute lectures from their parents and tips on what to do. I had no speech ready and just showed up with basically a robot I built that was sitting on my shelf. Well that year I won 3rd place in engineering, if that is considering "winning". I was not very happy about that, but I learned how much of a pageant this was. In my 11th grade year I decided to try a bit harder. I came in with an GPS guided AGV and lots of different tests done with it. I still saw the parents coaching their children, but I was prepared for that. I think the judges can really tell who did their projects themselves and in the end it pays off for people to do their own projects. I won 1st place in computer science that year and went on to get 3rd in the state. Now with my senior year coming, I am not too sure if I want to enter again. For a hobby I do in my spare time, they really do make it boring to enter into a science fair. I am more into sharing concepts than participating in a competition, but I do like to win when I compete. I can believe this kid did all of this on his own. I think people who first meet me question how much I do on my own, but a simpel conversation with someone can reveal their depth of knowledge. So keep building!

    • patrickmccb / about 13 years ago / 1

      (Pulls out soap box) I have a beef with the current idea of a science fair. When a kid (me) waits until the 10th grade to enter his first science fair, you have a problem. I have some projects that I think are really cool, that is why I built them. Do they serve a purpose? No. Are they testing something? No. Is it some kind of research that can be used to further develop something in the future? Maybe... I have a hard time figuring out what is consider science and engineering. Where is the "make cool, fun, and engaging projects fair"? Ah right, it is called Maker Faire. We will always have our research, our practical applications, our mathematical theorems, but I like to have fun. Surely fun turns into something in the future. There are kids out there who find the research I find boring to be very lively. I have some project I consider awesome that would never catch attention in a science fair, because it does not fit. I think someone needs to bring the fun back, if it ever was.

  • Davidjh / about 13 years ago * / 2

    This is fantasitc and amazing, Sam! Congratulations on your win--you obviously deserve it, and good luck in the upcoming MASTERS competition! While there were valid points about SOME students riding coat tails of mentors, or the parents doing most of the work, I KNOW that teens aren't given the credit they deserve for the brains and ambition and hard work they put it. In the opening description, the Sparkfun folks had already vetted that you know what you were talking about, and that YOU were the one who was inspired, created the concept, designed the circuitry and code, and made it work! Is it a commercial product? No--it is a proof of concept, so the breadboards are entirely valid. Is it a worthwhile project worthy fo taking to the next level, designing a PCB and enclosure and everything? Absolutley! and I hope that you get the support to take this to the next level. And we should all be proud, and humbled, by both your ability and dedication, and also by you wanting to use your talent to make the world a better place for people who need some help to level the playing field. Never let anybody tell you you can't do anything! You have proven yourself, and if people don't want to give you the credit for your talents and abilities and motivations, the heck with them! I know you will go far, pursuing your passion, and you are already making the world a better place by doing so! And I for one would certainly be willing to kick in for needed supplies or tools for you for projects like this. And if Sparkfun doesn't offer you some kind of an internship or some kind of opportunity to let you shine under their name, they need new marketing people. ;) Just sayin... :)

  • Him and i both attended the regional and state fair at durango colorado, we had a lot of fun as we were both the kids with the glove projects (http://www.sparkfun.com/news/580)
    I look forward to competing with him next year as im sure both of our project will be better!

    • Young Maker / about 13 years ago / 1

      hey Easton! what fo you do for funds? im a litte short now. im thinking of opening a small computer repair/website development/embedded development buisness

  • customer207 / about 13 years ago / 2

    Is there video of this? I want to see and hear this in action!

  • baum / about 13 years ago / 2

    Nice work. I bet he knows how much that mold costs, now! :)

  • tpobrienjr / about 13 years ago / 1

    Sam has a great project. I'm glad to see young people interested in more than video games and Facebook!
    A few weeks ago, I gave my card to a fellow IEEE member who was recruiting judges for the San Antonio Regional Science Fair. I'm looking forward to seeing the best projects from this region, and I hope that many of them are of the same high quality as Sam's project. My son (now PhD) and daughter (now MD) both did Science Fair projects from K through 12, and it was good for them - even opened some doors, I think.

  • Calif / about 13 years ago / 1

    Parents should get him a soldering station. Too bad he's going to be unemployed most of his life. Science & technology doesn't pay much in the refinancing nation.

  • knuckles904 / about 13 years ago / 1

    Awesome job man, you've got a bright future ahead of you. Keep up your side projects even when life happens.
    (P.S. make a website, put google adsense on there and that'll keep the funding coming in while you play-worked for me)

  • Member #204836 / about 13 years ago / 1

    I'm very impressed with that project. As a soon-to-be ninth grader, I have seen quite a few "Parental Guidance" projects and I could see that is isn't one of those. My suggestion is to make a robot that translates spoken language into signing.
    P.S.: Doesn't sign language use BOTH hands???

    • SomeGuy123 / about 13 years ago / 1

      Sign language does use both hands, but this is just a proof of concept.

  • Member #225224 / about 13 years ago / 1

    I’ll comment on Sam’s project one more time and I will butt out since I’m his Dad and therefore biased. There is a place for skeptics in our society, for good reasons. I myself was blown out by Sam’s project. I didn’t think he could accomplish so much for his age but he did. When he gets passionate about something, he gives it all he’s got. He worked very hard on this project and kept perfecting it after the San Juan Basin (regional) Science Fair. I was with him the day before the State Fair when he stayed in the motel the whole day working on the code. He went from approximately three pages of code to, I believe, over 10 pages. Am I right, Sam? By the way, we stayed in Motel 8 in Ft. Collins, not the Hilton. We are a lower middle class family with little money to spare but I would rather help Sam buy parts for his project than get a new (more like a good used) car, go on vacation or eat out once a week. It’s a matter of priority! How much Sam/we spent on his project is beside the point. To me, the hero of all this is Mike Grusin of Sparkfun who showed us around as well as showed interest in Sam’s project and wrote the blog about it. We need more people like Mike to let young people know that what they do is important and to encourage them to pursue their passion in science, engineering, and other fields. Thank you Mike.

  • franspaco / about 13 years ago / 1

    Pretty NICE !!! I like it.... however it must be pretty expensive too... :(

  • Yay! Another person who knows awesome stuff (i.e. why binary is: 1st of 4 columns = 1 or no 8's, 2nd is 4's, etc.) in the 1001 to 1110 age range!

  • wdmichael / about 13 years ago / 1

    Great job, Sam! Keep in mind that many people here may not remember what it was like to be in 8th grade. Your accomplishments are really outstanding. Keep up the good work!

  • Member #94219 / about 13 years ago / 1

    Great project man!!! Looks like you put a lot of time and effort into it. I love to see projects like this that no one has ever tried before. Seems as if a lot of projects these days are just knock offs of some other project...
    Keep up the great work!

  • CJ_arduino / about 13 years ago / 1

    Very cool to see another 8th grade out inventor there. Really cool idea. Makes me wish I had started earlier :(

  • raul7 / about 13 years ago / 1

    humm... suspicious and very hard to believe. But anyway there is a clear distintion between bulding/adapting/studying and designing/engineering something.

  • Jon15 / about 13 years ago / 1

    Back in 2000 when I was in 5th grade I remember being totally lost and striving to find resources to build robots. I built various hacked sensors for lego mindstorms robots and tested them for ability in a maze.
    eventually projects like this got me into a mentoring program at the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in columbus OH where I met astronauts, engineers and other people to help me with my passions. From that I ended up in a great college!
    Great job! I wish I had sparkfun growing up ;p Robot builders bonanza wasn't that bad though.

  • manoweb / about 13 years ago / 1

    To all smart kids: do you know who is your N.1 enemy? Your professors. Unless they happen to have a job in the industry and teach for passion, they are often not very prepared, and they won't allow you to go beyond. So, study on www.khanacademy.org it can give you so much more!!!
    PS I know because I've been a professor in high school in the past... and my coworkers... well did not exactly had the goal to make the gifted kids "shine"...

    • Luckily my sister goes to the Doane Stuart school in NY. We were late to pick her up one time from a summer meeting with her math teacher, and she said that they'd just done like 1/2 a unit of Calculus!

  • jgalak / about 13 years ago / 1

    Wow, that's awesome. And good for your for doing it yourself - I'm with another-dave - all too many "kids" project are done by their parents. I remember when I was in HS (15+ years ago... now I feel old... :) ), competing in a regional science fair, the girl across the aisle from me had a project that let you insert a US bill into a "wallet" and would speak the value of the currency - meant for blind people.
    Only problem was, she didn't know what an OpAmp was (her project was pretty much all OpAmps in comparator mode)... And her father happened to be an electronics engineer... Color me suspicious. Of course, she won the regional science fair, and placed very highly in the Westinghouse (predecessor of Intel) competition.
    So even more kudos to you for doing it yourself.

  • MilesTag / about 13 years ago / 1

    8th grade!?! Wow! Last year I helped my 8th grade nephew with his electronics merit badge. He had to assemble a small kit that used a 555 to flash an LED. I have to say I was pretty proud just to see him soldering parts to a PC board, and the flasher worked!
    Keep it up Sam, you may rule the world some day (or destroy it). Save this for your university capstone project - it's better already than most I've seen.

    • MilesTag / about 13 years ago / 2

      And if the engineering skills weren't enough... he knows sign language. (I only know ONE word in sign language, but it's strictly for communicating with other drivers on the freeway).

  • htimmis / about 13 years ago / 1

    this is great!!

  • Javiman / about 13 years ago / 1


  • Great work, but he might want to work on his "rat's nest" breadboard. All those extra-long wires would likely get pulled out on a glove.
    Man, I wish I had access to XBees, LED matrices, and SpeakJets when I was in Grade 8!

  • lorenw / about 13 years ago / 1

    Nice !!! he's got a bright future ahead of him!!!

  • Squintz / about 13 years ago / 1

    I would like to see video. It sounds like a really cool project.

  • Bangwaiter / about 13 years ago / 1

    Especially for this project I would use PCB and not breadboard, if he is using it he will probably rip it apart by accident.

  • mjkuwp / about 13 years ago / 1

    Very nice work!

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