By LAURA PAPPANO
Published: September 13, 2013
Days before I was to meet Battushig Myanganbayar at his home in Mongolia, he sent me an e-mail with a modest request: Would I bring him a pair of tiny XBee wireless antennas? Electronic parts are scarce in Mongolia (he used components from old elevators for some of his projects), and packages ordered online take weeks to show up.
When I arrived, antennas in hand, at his apartment in the middle-class neighborhood of Khan Uul, in Ulan Bator, Battushig, 16, led me down a steep incline into the building’s underground garage to show me what they were for. Many children in the city play in their apartment buildings’ driveways, but this one seemed oriented in a particularly dangerous way. Battushig worried about his 10-year-old sister and her friends being hit by an exiting car. Standing in the concrete space, its aqua walls nicked, he pointed overhead to a white box containing a sensor from which he had run wires to a siren with a flashing red light outside in the building’s driveway. His Garage Siren gave his sister and the other children time to get out of the way when a car was coming.
Battushig, playing the role of the car, moved into the sensor’s path to show me how it worked, but it was clear he was not entirely satisfied with his design. “The use of the long wires is very inconvenient for my users,” he said, almost apologetically, clasping his hands together in emphasis. He realized that contractors would be reluctant to install the siren in other buildings if they had to deal with cumbersome wiring, so he was developing a wireless version. Thus, the antennas.
Battushig has the round cheeks of a young boy, but he is not your typical teenager. He hasn’t read Harry Potter (“What will I learn from that?”) and doesn’t like listening to music (when a friend saw him wearing headphones, he couldn’t believe it; it turned out Battushig was preparing for the SAT). His projects are what make him happy. “In electrical engineering, there is no limit,” he said. “It is like playing with toys.” He unveiled Garage Siren in August 2012, posting instructions and a demonstration video on YouTube. The project impressed officials at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology — where Battushig planned to apply for college — but at that point they were already aware of his abilities. Two months earlier, Battushig, then 15, became one of 340 students out of 150,000 to earn a perfect score in Circuits and Electronics, a sophomore-level class at M.I.T. and the first Massive Open Online Course, or MOOC — a college course filmed and broadcast free or nearly free to anyone with an Internet connection — offered by the university. Read more.