Accident inspires Barrington girl's award-winning project


Sarah Finnerty does not ride bikes much anymore.

The 14-year-old’s bicycle is actually packed away in the basement of her Barrington home, a nice house situated at the end of a quiet cul-de-sac near the Palmer River.

There were days, before the accident, when she would ride her bike. But now, three years after her father was seriously injured while riding his bike on the East Bay Bike Path, she has little interest in lugging the bike up from the cellar. She would much rather go swimming or practice her violin or talk to her friends.

Still, it was that accident in 2010 that has acted as the inspiration to Sarah’s award-winning science fair project: a bicycle helmet filled with soft poly-foam cushioning that appears to do a better job protecting the contents of the helmet. Her project has garnered a lot of attention, and could possibly lead to a business venture.

Sarah’s project “Can We Build a Safer Bike Helmet?” recently won the best in fair award at the state science fair in the junior division, the Society of Women Engineers award, and a citation from Senator Jack Reed. It also earned an invitation to participate in the Broadcom MASTERS Competition, a national contest for the best science fair projects.

The Bay View Academy eighth-grader has experienced so much positive feedback for her project that she recently submitted an application to conduct a patent search for the design of her new helmet.

“I was a little surprised it (a similar design) hasn’t been developed yet,” she said.

Sarah’s work on the project started in Oct. 2012, and built momentum when she began conducting research for the helmet cushioning. Her tests — she ran experiments using eggs to gauge the effectiveness of different padding — started matching her early projections.

She recognized the success of the softer cushioning, which was a combination of modeling poly-foam and thin layers of hard plastic. She also noticed the limitations of the harder foam, which is very common in most bike helmets.

Sarah became consumed by her work.

“I remember about two weeks of midnights,” said Sarah’s mother, Liz Finnerty.

The long days and late nights yielded plenty of rewards. Sarah submitted her project in the school science fair, which was “really competitive,” and was ecstatic with her top place finish. The work then traveled to the state fair, which, at first, seemed quite daunting to the young Barrington girl.

“The boy next to me had his project on bio-energy from grass clippings,” she said. “He had a six-foot board. It was big.”

All around her were the top projects from middle school students across the state. But any wisps of doubt fluttered away once judges began reviewing the work. She can clearly remember two judges who work at Raytheon, and their suggestion that she pursue a patent on the new design. A short time later she stood atop the rest of the field of science fair projects and began considering applying to the Broadcom MASTERS Competition, which pits the best projects from across the country against each other. There are only 30 Broadcom finalists; more than 3,000 students in California alone submit their projects annually.

Sarah bounces, literally, while thinking about becoming a Broadcom finalist. She knows the odds are long, but can’t help from show her excitement when thinking of how the recognition will lead to more assistance in developing her prototype. Broadcom’s top picks won’t be made public until August, which could make for a long few months for the local girl, and for her mother.

In the meantime, Sarah and her mom are doing their best to keep her project — it includes a tri-board backing with three bike helmets perched atop — in good shape.

They’re also starting work on their backyard garden and focusing on keeping up with Sarah’s busy schedule. When Sarah is not at school, she spends her time swimming competitively (and for fun) and playing the violin. She also likes tooling around on, which she explains as a virtual corkboard where she can share her ideas with others.

There’s also occasional trips for “froyo.” Sarah said she “likes weird food” — her favorite dish is foie gras, even though she said she is mostly a vegetarian with a deep love for pasta.

The night she won the state science fair she and her mom celebrated with a trip for some frozen yogurt “of course,” and then stopped by Barrington Beach to share her excitement with the rest of the world:

“I just screamed really loud,” Sarah said, with a smile.

Science at work

Some of the basis for Sarah Finnerty’s science project can be traced to something she heard a doctor say after her father’s accident. He reportedly said the hard composition of the helmet could have played a role in her father’s injuries.

“When you hit your head on a hard surface it hurts because the hard surface sends all of the impact right back to you,” Sarah said, “but the soft surface absorbs all the impact like a pillow.”

That was the hypothesis behind Sarah’s science experiment. She designed three miniature model helmets to three different standards, two to her standards with a soft exterior and the third built to existing factory standards with a hard exterior. She performed various impact tests on the helmet, using eggs to simulate a head. The results? “My outcome was that my model helmets did best and model three was totally obliterated and I had a big mess to clean up.”


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Jim McGaw

A lifelong Portsmouth resident, Jim graduated from Portsmouth High School in 1982 and earned a journalism degree from the University of Rhode Island in 1986. He's worked two different stints at East Bay Newspapers, for a total of 18 years with the company so far. When not running all over town bringing you the news from Portsmouth, Jim listens to lots and lots and lots of music, watches obscure silent films from the '20s and usually has three books going at once. He also loves to cook crazy New Orleans dishes for his wife of 25 years, Michelle, and their two sons, Jake and Max.