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Jamie Fenton, a 17-year-old from Taranaki, has invented a traffic light device to help prevent preschoolers going deaf at childcare centres. The noise level meter is now being produced commercially by the National Foundation for the Deaf.

As a 10-year-old, Jamie initially built this device, with the help of her dad, as an entry into a school science fair. “The idea came from my classroom where we had a behaviour system that the teacher would monitor using the red, amber and green of traffic lights,” says Jamie. “Red meant we couldn’t talk at all, yellow meant a little bit of talking and green meant we could talk as we liked. We hardly ever reached green.”

The first model used an old tool box, 3 plastic Petri dishes and some coloured cellophane to represent the lights. Jamie rigged up a small electronic circuit of LED lights to a buzzer and a remote control, enabling the teacher to switch between colours and alert the students with a tone that noise levels were going up. She developed a more sophisticated device called the ‘professor’s electronic ear’. “By adding a ‘pickaxe’, which is basically a microchip, and a ‘Darlington circuit’ (a transistor), the noise meter was capable of changing from green to amber to red,” explains Jamie. It was awarded a merit at the science fair.

National Foundation for the Deaf and Jamie’s device

When the National Foundation for the Deaf wanted a device to monitor noise levels in classrooms, they came across Jamie’s design. Jamie has now built a third prototype that includes a decibel monitor triggering a traffic light system. She has given this prototype to the National Foundation for the Deaf to manufacture. It will warn the teacher and students of unsafe noise levels. The red light flashes when noise exceeds 80 decibels (dB). Hearing damage begins with noise above 85dB.

The Deaf Awareness Week 2009 survey of 65 early childhood education centres from around the country showed that 20% of children had been affected by a high level of noise, demonstrating behaviours from putting their hands over their ears to being so distressed they cried. Stuart McLaren and Philip Dickinson from Massey University studied noise in early childhood education centres. They measured the level of noise experienced by 45 staff and 155 3–5-year-olds in 32 early childhood education centres and found that more than a quarter of children and one-sixth of the teaching staff received dosages in excess of the maximum daily sound exposures permitted for employees under the health and safety in employment legislation.

National Deaf Awareness Week is held each year in September. The National Foundation for the Deaf works with early childhood education centres to protect the hearing of young children who are more vulnerable to hearing damage than adults.

It’s every kid’s dream when you enter a science competition to one day become a real inventor. Mine is coming true and I love it,

Jamie Fenton

The National Foundation for the Deaf has offered Jamie a university scholarship, and she has already completed a number of university papers in mathematics.

Find out about another successful science fair project, the Kindling Cracker.

Useful links

The New Zealand National Foundation for the Deaf website.

Jamie Fenton was named Young New Zealander of the Year 2011, find out more about her award.

Ask Jamie Fenton questions about her achievements on the Wicked website.

    Published 22 September 2010, Updated 4 August 2011 Referencing Hub articles