Mai Quoc Huy is neither an outstanding student nor a teacher's favorite. However, the 16-year-old student used the skills he has learned through first-hand experience to earn first prize at the Ho Chi Minh City Informatics Competition for Youth 2018.
Huy might spend most of his free time helping his father sell second-hand speakers and repairing his neighbors' electric devices, but every now and then he finds a reason to sneak off to local bookstores and read up physics, electricity, and programming.
Though he is just an ordinary student from a low-income family, his ability to remember even the smallest detail of electrical devices is a skill others can only dream of.
A ninth grader who can turn bikes from manual to electric
Thanks to his teacher's proposition, Huy was chosen to represent Ban Co Middle School in District 3, Ho Chi Minh City at two municipal competitions: the Science Fair for Daily Inventions and Informatics Competition for Youth, both of which awarded him first prize for his submission: his grandfather's old bicycle installed with a motor, throttle, and solar batteries to turn it into an electric bike
Having joined the competition for the first time, Huy was funded with VND1 million (around US$43) for the project.
To parents' and neighbors' surprise, Huy's electric bicycle, able to reach speeds of 40kph, was awarded two first prizes and qualified for the national competition to be held in August.
Now, Huy is putting the final touches on his "invention" to prepare for the upcoming event.
The bicycle is not only special because it is powered by solar energy, it also has other features that most bicycles do not, mostly inspired by Huy's own experience as a cyclist.
"One time I went to visit a friend in Cho Ray Hospital and my bicycle was moved to a new spot in the gigantic parking lot. When I got home, I decided that I would equip the bike with some of the convenient features that motorbikes have, such as radio waves (RF) that can help find the vehicle more easily," Huy said.
Many people believe that bikes are not a valuable, but for Huy, it is his most important asset. Hence, the boy was determined to design a GPS system to prevent theft.
The young inventor proudly presented his most recent addition to the bike: a feature that allows any phone to send a text message and be informed of the bike's location, no matter where it is.
"Each text message costs VND200 [less than one cent] but I am still finalizing a system to send the data through the Internet to save money," the student revealed.
As impressive as the features may seem, there are still many more the 16-year-old hopes to add in the future, such as automatic headlights, break lights, and automatic indicators which sensor tilting movement.
All these functions would make riding a bicycle not only significantly more convenient, but also much safer.
Phan Nguyen Truc Phuong, Huy's engineering instructor at the Science Development Center for Youth under the Ho Chi Minh City chapter of the Ho Chi Minh Communist Youth Union, is a full supporter of Huy's ideas.
"Even though Huy's idea is not new, it is very practical since it results from daily lives," she said.
Huy's self-studying journey
Having grown up in a working-class neighborhood on Vuon Chuoi Street in District 3, Huy is more than used to the sounds of loud motors, local working, and construction.
However, it was only recently that he began to involve himself in his father's blue-collar profession.
"Being a motor repairman is a tiresome and unstable job. It only provides for my family's most basic needs so I do not want my son to follow in my footsteps," said Huy's father, Mai Hoang Ha.
"But I still show him a few simple things to be able to make a day-to-day living, repair his own vehicle, and help others in the neighborhood. He first became interested in repairing electric devices around the house in grade eight so I decided to show him a few small things. Since then, I've let him experiment on his own and only watched him for safety. I don't know much about automating so I haven't been able to help him much with that."
Fully aware of the family's financial situation, Huy tries to avoid asking his parents for extra money. Instead, he saves up his allowance to buy what he needs for his projects.
With just VND20,000 ($0.9) a day, every few days Huy saves enough money to visit Nhat Tao Market, Ho Chi Minh City's most well-known electrical component market.
The books provided at his school do not supply the young inventor with the knowledge he needs so he goes to bookstores to look for higher level books on physics.
"I want to have a better understanding of electricity but the technology and physics classes at school only provide brief and basic knowledge. In order to gain a thorough understanding I need to try and understand those subjects myself. I usually use my days off to go to the bookstore and read," Huy said.
"Books about programming and electronic circuits are all very thick. I am able to understand small parts of them, but I haven't been able to apply much of the knowledge. Each book costs over VND100,000 so I only "borrow" them to read in the bookstore. I can't buy them because then I wouldn't have enough money for component parts."
Vocational training is good enough to make a proper living
Having received results of entrance exams for high school, Huy was happy to score 30 out of 50.
"Attending top schools will not allow time to play, especially to experiment with electric devices. I am going to choose a school suitable for my capability, near my home and provides vocational training," Huy said.
"Everyone wants their children to attend college. But if he's not capable of it, I am happy to let him study in a vocational school for electronics, or anything he enjoys as long as he will be capable of making a living. Being a motor repairer, I have seen many youngsters who finished 12th grade but are still only drivers or work as attendants at supermarkets. I let my son study whatever he likes. I do not want to decide his own life," Huy's father said.
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