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Fort McMurray student earns big scholarships for computer science innovations

A 17-year-old Fort McMurray student has been offered four scholarships with a combined value of almost $250,000 for his innovative ventures in computer science.

“I was definitely very surprised and exciting. I’m still processing the significance of all of this,” said Saptarshi Bhattacherya, a Grade 12 student at Westwood Community High School. 

“It’s definitely very surreal.”

He got the first scholarship offer in February and the most recent one in May. 

The University of Alberta offered him the President’s Entrance Citation worth $7,500 a year; the University of British Columbia offered him the $40,000 Presidential Scholars award, and both the University of Toronto and the University of Waterloo offered him the $100,000 Schulich Leader scholarship.

“It’s amazing to have all of these amazing opportunities to develop myself,” Bhattacherya said.

His applications were based on academic performance. For the Schulich scholarships, he had to write about some of the projects he’s completed.

One project was Visual Aids for the Deaf Using Audio Recognition (VADAR). Bhattacherya created a device to help people who are deaf or hard of hearing get real-time transcriptions. 

The device is an attachment for a pair of glasses that uses artificial intelligence to create a transcription of a conversation and project it onto a lens. That way the wearer can read the conversation as it happens. 

Bhattacherya created VADAR in Grade 10 after he heard about advances in artificial intelligence that could accurately transcribe speech. The project won him third place at the Inventures 2019 student pitch competition. 

VADAR clips onto a pair of glasses and projects a transcription of a spoken conversation. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

“We can use this technology to bridge the gap and democratize the ability to hear and have a vocal conversation,” said Bhattacherya. “I think that would be a pretty amazing application of the technology.” 

He said he considered turning VADAR into a real product, but he thought it best to go to school to continue learning and find out how he could improve it in the future. 

He also created an app during the summer after Grade 11 when he noticed he and his classmates were struggling with chemistry homework during the pandemic. 

“I decided to spend my time writing an app called ChemFriend,” said Bhattacherya. 

If a student is struggling with a chemical equation, they enter it into the app, which will solve and balance the equation, as well as provide step-by-step instructions on the solution.

He released it on the App Store and it has been downloaded hundreds of times.

“It’s an example of seeing a problem in my community and trying to solve it.” 

said el mejdani
Said El Mejdani is Bhattacherya’s computer science teacher. (Jamie Malbeuf/CBC)

Said El Mejdani, Bhattacherya’s computer sciences teacher, wasn’t surprised to hear about his student’s scholarships. 

“When you have a student, 15 years old, creating things with artificial intelligence and creating product to help people, for me that says a lot about how great is this student,” he said.

Bhattacherya has decided he will attend the University of Waterloo’s software engineering program in September. 

He is slated to graduate high school next month.

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