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America’s Top Young Scientist

Ninth grader Leanne Fan won the 2022 3M Young Scientist Challenge for inventing headphones that can treat ear infections.

A teen girl smiles and holds up a lucite award in front of a sign reading 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

Discovery Education, 3M Young Scientist Challenge. 2022.

Leanne Fan won the 3M Young Scientist Challenge for inventing headphones that can detect and treat ear infections.

Leanne Fan, a 9th grader at Westview High School in San Diego, California, is America’s Top Young Scientist. Fan earned the title, along with a $25,000 prize, for winning the 2022 3M Young Scientist Challenge. Fan invented headphones that can detect and treat ear infections. 

Fan’s headphones detect ear infections using machine learning, which means they’re programmed to “learn” as they gather data, or information. After sending a sound into the wearer’s ear canal, the headphones can detect an infection based on the echo of the sound. The headphones then treat the infection using blue light, which is known to kill bacteria. Finally, the headphones can transmit music as they treat an infection, so it’s pleasant to wear them. Fan named her invention Finsen Headphones, after Niels Finsen, a scientist who in 1895 invented phototherapy, which is the use of light to treat certain diseases.

Discovery Education, 3M Young Scientist Challenge. 2022.

Leanne Fan presents her invention, Finsen Headphones, at the 3M Young Scientist Challenge.

Fan came up with the idea for the headphones while trying to find a treatment for her mom’s ear infections. She later learned that 700 million people worldwide get ear infections each year, and most of them are children. Without treatment, an ear infection can cause complications. Fan estimates that her headphones could eventually prevent up to 60 percent of hearing loss in kids. 

Leanne is still perfecting her invention. Next, she’ll test it on people and make changes based on the results. She encourages other young scientists to bring their ideas to life.

“I would say that if you have an idea, definitely go for it,” she said in an interview published on

Did You Know?

© Emma Sanger-Horwell—E+/Getty Images, © Freddy Cahyono/; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Not every animal has ears. Spiders use the hairs on their eight legs to detect sound waves. And a recent study found that some spiders can detect sounds from across a room!

How Smart Is Your Phone?

© Weiquan Lin—Moment/Getty Images

If your phone has ever suggested a word as you start to type it, or if you get suggestions for new websites to look at based on websites you’ve visited before, then you’ve seen machine learning at work. 

Machine learning is part of what’s called artificial intelligence. It’s the ability of a computer or another machine to “learn” information and add it to its database without that information being programmed in by a human. Machine learning is a lot like human learning. The more a machine learns, the more it improves at its task.

Check out some examples of machine learning. 

Image recognition

Example: When your phone unlocks because it recognizes your face

Speech recognition

Example: When you speak into your phone and the words come up on the screen


Example: When a social media site suggests people to follow based on people you already follow


Example: When you’re shopping for a product and you later see ads for that product

We’ve become more and more dependent on machines and machine learning. Is that a good thing? What do you think?

Super Computers

The words I am so intelligent appear on the screen of a laptop that is wearing a graduation cap.

© Jemastock/; Animation Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc.

Machine learning is part of artificial intelligence. If you want to know more about how machines got smart—and how much smarter they could get—check out Britannica School.

Find out at Britannica School!






: skill or cleverness that allows someone to solve problems, invent things, etc.

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