St. John Fisher grad Braeden Benedict earns ‘America’s Top Young Scientist’ honor.

While still a toddler, Braeden Benedict learned to solve mathematic problems ---in his mind. 

“We would play games when we were driving in the car, such as tic-tac-toe using numbers,” said his father Bryan Benedict, an aerospace industry chemical engineer. “We were playing tic-tac-toe against each other in our heads.”

The games paid off.

In October, the 14-year-old St. John Fisher graduate and former student body president was named by Discovery Education and 3M “2011 America’s Top Young Scientist” after winning a live science competition at 3M Innovation Center in St. Paul, Minnesota, where he needed to create an innovation addressing an everyday life problem. He was one of 10 finalists from 800 nationwide applicants.

The reward: $25,000 for personal use and a trip with Discovery Students Adventures to Costa Rica next summer to study the life in the rain forest. A large percentage of Braeden’s prize will be used for college expenses, said his mother Maurena Nacheff, also an engineer.

Another part will help develop the prototype of a football helmet he invented for the competition, which will help spot harmful concussions in football, hockey or lacrosse athletes. A censor on the front of the helmet activates a darker material when an athlete is hurt, making it easier for others to take the appropriate measures. 

The boy came up with the idea after a friend suffered a concussion while playing football and it was not until weeks later that he showed any symptoms (such as disorientation), having to leave school for a month and the sport for good.

 “I was thinking about ideas for the competition,” said Braeden, who plays football and lacrosse, “and since I also play football I recalled my friend’s experience and thought about developing this simple idea.” 

During the competition the finalists shared their innovations with a panel of judges, including Reed Timmer of Discovery Channel’s Storm Chasers. They were evaluated on their scientific knowledge, creativity and use of 3M technology.

Well-regarded school

With his exposure to mathematics at an early age, Braeden’s analytical way of thinking came naturally. 

And he found the perfect environment at St. John Fisher School in Rancho Palos Verdes, which has gained a reputation in the South Bay Area for its integrated curriculum.

In 2010 it won the National Blue Ribbon Award for its performance in science, mathematics and English. It was the one of the two Catholic schools selected in California and the only one in the Archdiocese of Los Angeles. It has also won several statewide competitions.

“He is such a shining example and I hope he will inspire them,” principal Anne-Marie Hudani said after a Nov. 30 hands-on science middle school students assembly hosted by Discovery Education and 3M in the school’s auditorium.

“This opens their eyes to the possibilities they can achieve, they can accomplish,” she continued. “It’s nice to see that enthusiasm of the children today; it brings science to life.”

At the same time, she added, “We don’t want to become a science academy; the arts are very important, too. We want them to be very well-rounded individuals. It’s very important they write well and to be able to communicate with people and to develop computer skills as well as critical thinking skills through reading.”

Parents praised the principal’s leadership and interest in developing their children’s skills in all areas.

“Science is so important; it’s about asking questions, making observations; it’s all around you, and Mrs. Hudani, faculty and staff are paying attention to this,” said attorney Maria Villa, a Parents and Teachers Association executive member.

“This is wonderful!” said PTA president Bea Osborne after observing the children’s response to a hands-on presentation led by Discovery’s Patti Duncan. “It all has to do with choosing the right teachers and staff. Parents in this school are very dedicated and supportive.”

‘Clever scientist’

In his three middle school years, Braeden Benedict showed his scientific acumen, participating in the L.A. County Science Fair and the California Science Fair. He received honorable mention in the energy and power category in seventh and eighth grades, a “clever scientist” award in seventh grade and a second place in materials science category in eighth grade. That earned him a spot in the Inaugural Broadcom MASTERS (Math, Applied Science, Technology and Engineering Rising Stars) competition together with 1,500 applicants.

The finals were held in Washington, D.C., but he could not attend due to conflict of schedule with the Discovery competition. Nevertheless, the school was awarded $1,000 for supporting students by promoting science research in middle school.

These achievements, together with his communication skills earned during his five years of acting in the SJF drama program, caught science teacher Astrid Reichelt’s attention. She suggested the Benedicts enter the Discovery Education 3M Young Scientist Challenge, an outreach program for middle school students.

For mentoring Braeden in the Broadcom contest, Reichelt was honored by MIT Lincoln Laboratory, which named after her a minor planet discovered by its Lincoln Near-Earth Asteroid Research program (LINEAR).

To enter the Discovery contest, students were required to submit in April a two-minute video about their idea. Then in June, Braeden and nine middle school students from across the country were announced as the 10 finalists.

During the rest of the summer they participated in a summer mentorship program, each of them working directly with a 3M scientist who provided guidance as the children developed their ideas from a theoretical concept to a final prototype. Each of the students documented their mentorship experience.

Finalists also competed in two additional challenges where they had to combine multiple 3M technologies to yield new solutions, and identify where a tornado would hit on a map based on specific factor and weather conditions.

“At middle school many students lose their spark for science,” commented Patti Duncan, a Discovery instructional implementation specialist who led several entertaining, hands-on experiments during the Nov. 30 assembly at the Rancho Palos Verdes school. “So we want to encourage and motivate students to do hands-on exploration, to learn to ask why. They won’t have a scientific mind unless they explore, unless we spark their interest.”

The other part of the process is the content, and for that it is important to put part of the responsibility on the kids’ hands, she explained.

“It’s important that they become part of the process and learn to make decisions,” she said, citing an East Coast school where the students were involved in the whole process of its renovation, from decision-making to the repairs.

“The students felt they owned the project and three years later the school is pristine,” she noted.

Braeden, a veteran altar server and Boy Scout, has learned to take that responsibility, his parents said. In the process, they said, he is better prepared for high school and has gained self-confidence. 

 “It’s good to let them make mistakes, to let them fail without giving your kids all the answers, so they can figure a way out,” said his father.

“He’s an old soul,” added his mother. “He’s not the one you have to push.”

For more information about Discovery Education’s Young Scientist Challenge, visit

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