when he was 2, whiz kid Ryan Patterson asked his parents for an extension cord for Christmas. He got his wish and soon was sleeping with his cherished gift by his bed. As a preschooler “he took apart the can opener and the stereo,” recalls his mother, Sherry, so that he could see how they worked. In elementary school he built his own robotic floor mop and, says older sister Kimberlee, 20, “used to chase me and my friends around and squirt us with water from it.”
Luckily Ryan, now 18, has decided to use his powers for good and not just for messing with his sister. A senior at Central High School in Grand Junction, Colo., Ryan swept three of the nation’s most prestigious high school science fairs with his latest invention: a sign-language-translating glove. The device, a golf glove wired with a tiny circuit board and 10 sensors that translate sign language into text displayed on a portable screen, earned Ryan top honors and a $100,000 scholarship at the Intel Science Talent Search this March. He also won a $100,000 scholarship at the Siemens Westing-house Science & Technology Competition in December on top of the $50,000 grand prize at Intel’s International Science and Engineering Fair last May. “I don’t think most kids realize the magnitude of what Ryan has done, winning all three in a year,” says Denny Deardon, principal of Central High, where Ryan has his own trophy case for his dozens of awards. “He possesses not only intelligence and focus but a dogged determination to be the best.”
Ryan got the idea for the glove after watching a deaf girl at a restaurant order lunch through a human interpreter. “I realized,” he says, “that if I could build an electronic interpreter, it would make life easier for people.” He developed the glove with some of his earnings from an earlier award-winning invention called the Sleuthbot, a high-speed robot designed to search buildings, which he says was inspired by the Columbine killings. “He is so meticulous that some of the judges didn’t believe a kid could have done all he did,” says John McConnell, 71, a retired physicist who has served as Ryan’s mentor since 1992. “He never makes a mistake.”
Far from being a pocket-protector-wearing science nerd, at school the popular Ryan is actually “a bit of a rock star,” says Deardon. The younger of two children raised in Grand Junction by father Randy, 46, a welding fabricator, and mother Sherry, 44, a teacher’s aide, he was so shy as a child that “he’d hide under the bed when company came,” says Sherry. A precociously curious Ryan learned basic electronics from his dad, but by the time he started kindergarten, says Randy, “I couldn’t answer his questions anymore.”
Sensing their 8-year-old son needed more stimulation, the Patter sons turned to McConnell, who now runs the Western Colorado Math & Science Center. “Ryan always had all kinds of questions,” says McConnell, who saw his protégé on Saturdays and still attends all of his science fairs, “about nuclear physics, how a reactor works, all kinds of things.” In the eighth grade “he’d finish up his algebra early and take out blueprints to design an artificial-intelligence neuro-network,” says his then teacher, Liz Chase. “But he still got along with everyone. He was just a regular kid who did these amazing things on the side.”
Ryan, who carries a 4.1 grade point average, plans to major in electrical engineering. (He has narrowed his choice of schools down to two: Stanford and the University of Colorado at Boulder.) For now he is focused on developing the technology to make his translator talk (the glove will take a few years to get to market). A fan of the band Creed, Ryan recently took a break from tinkering with his invention to take classmate Tiffani Mantlo to the senior prom.
The two have been going out for a while, so “she knew I was going to ask her,” Ryan says. She just didn’t know how. When Ryan appeared on Good Morning America on March 12 to show off his glove, he baffled host Charlie Gibson by ditching a prearranged message and instead spelling out the query “Prom Tiff” on the monitor. “I was totally surprised,” says Mantlo, 17, who was watching with classmates at school. And that fits perfectly with Ryan’s rules to live by. “If you’re going to have a hobby,” he explains, “you need to have fun with it.”
Vickie Bane in Grand Junction