Faculty of Science News
Computer Science department lends a hand to high school students
Nelani Skantharajah and Tierra Williams received a gold medal at the Metro Science Fair on April 6th, for their project on cell phone radiation. Well done!
April 16, 2013
“We learn by doing” – Faciendo Discimus*
Nelani Skantharajah and Tierra Williams had a perfect topic for their school science fair. It was simple, their peers were intrigued, and it touches 90% of the world’s population. But they lacked the key instrument. Unfazed, they approached Ryerson University…
“It was frustrating,” Skantharajah admitted. “We saw that it was going to take a high-quality meter—better than the one we had—to detect and measure units at that level.” The cost was out of their reach.
So they approached universities in Ontario asking to borrow the meter they needed. Ryerson was the only one to reply “Yes.”
Meter in hand, a new problem emerged. All the testing was to happen at school with their friends’ (and their own) cell phones—representing four different models, from Galaxy Nexus to Blackberry Curve 9320—but it was hard to find any space free of radiation interference. “We tried to turn everything off in the classroom, but there were too many devices,” Williams explained. “It was better in the hallway.” The real eye-opener came at home, where radiation levels were higher still. As it says in the girls’ report, “we are surrounded by radiation.”
Fortunately, most of us are exposed to levels that are below the danger line (though Skantharajah and Williams point out that standards vary between countries; some parent groups in Ontario have voiced concern over WiFi in schools). One characteristic of cell phones, however, is proximity to our brains. Skantharajah and Williams note that while it’s unlikely that cell phones contribute “a significant amount of radiation” to our total exposure, “the fact that the device is held so close to our bodies may have serious effects.” They cite a study (2012) that shows an increase in brain glucose metabolism in the “region closest to the [cell phone] antenna”—though the study does not speculate on clinical significance.
Skantharajah and Williams put their results on display at the Danforth Collegiate science and technology fair in March. They also brought the Ryerson meter. “Everyone wanted us to test their phones!” Skantharajah said. Students had clustered around their table. Were they sobered by the results? “It got us all thinking,” said Williams. “We definitely feel more cautious. But people won’t stop using their phones,” she added. “They might text more, though,” Skantharajah offered. You don’t hold a phone as close to your body when you text.
A sample of the data in Skantharajah's and Williams's report.
Highlights of Project Results
For Skantharajah and Williams, a single gesture made a difference: “We want to thank Ryerson!”
And Ryerson is cheering them on.
*“We learn by doing” is the motto of Danforth Collegiate—home to MaST.
Girls in Science: A No-Brainer? (a continuation of this story)
Toronto Science Fair
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