A self-professed “science nerd,” Jonny Cohen, 17, doesn’t see things the way they are—but rather the way they could be.
For instance, walking home from school in 2008 as a seventh-grader in Highland Park, Ill., Jonny observed a sudden change in air pressure when a school bus rumbled past him. Exhaust was spewing from its tailpipe.
“I noticed the bus was very boxy, which is why it had created such a shift in the air, and I realized that because of its design, the bus was using more fuel than it needed,” Jonny recalls.
The brief encounter inspired Jonny to begin an ongoing scientific journey to make the big yellow fuel guzzlers more aerodynamic, economical and environmentally friendly.
His invention, which he calls GreenShields, is inspiring school transportation officials world-wide to rethink the design of the bulky vehicles.
“GreenShields has the potential to save $600 in fuel costs per bus, per year,” says Jonny, now a senior at Highland Park High School. “With 480,000 school buses on the road in the United States, that’s a lot of money that could be saved—money that could be put into books and great teachers, instead of into a gas tank.”
Jonny always has enjoyed tinkering and troubleshooting.
“From a very young age, Jonny would take apart his toys and try to rebuild them into something better,” says his mother, Jakee Cohen, 51, recalling how her son once tested his homemade rockets by strapping his younger sister’s Barbie dolls to them as passengers.
In 2007, he studied aerodynamics at a summer science camp at nearby Northwestern University in Chicago, setting the stage for a light bulb to go off in his head when that bulky school bus rumbled past him on a chilly February afternoon. Jonny ran home, sketched a rudimentary design and showed his idea to his older sister, Azza, an honors student at Highland Park. The siblings took Johnny’s idea to Azza’s physics teacher, Kunal Pujara, who was impressed by the youngster’s concept.
“I thought, ‘Wow! Why has no one considered changing the design of a school bus?’ It took a seventh-grader to have the idea!” recalls Pujara, 42.
Under Pujara’s guidance and with the help of Azza and several classmates, Jonny built and installed a GreenShields prototype on a toy school bus. He tested the design in his garage in a homemade wind tunnel fashioned from a plywood box, a leaf blower and a fog machine, which allowed the young scientist to see how air moved around the bus.
Interested in developing a full-size model, Jonny sought assistance from Stacy Benjamin, his former aerodynamics camp instructor and a director at the Segal Design Institute at Northwestern University’s School of Engineering.
“I remembered him because he had never-ending ideas,” says Benjamin, 43, who happily recruited two of her interns “to help Jonny make [his concept] real.” Together, they designed, built and tested various prototypes, making adjustments to address challenges such as window fogging and glare.
After winning a $25,000 grant from the Pepsi Refresh Project, which awards money to people making a positive impact on their communities, Jonny appeared in 2010 on ABC-TV’s “Good Morning America.” The wife of John Benish, director of Cook-Illinois Corp., which supplies and maintains the state’s school buses, happened to be watching. “The next thing we knew, Jonny was road testing his invention on a real school bus,” his mother says.
Resembling an airfoil on an airplane, GreenShields is made of fiberglass and easily attaches to the roof of a school bus. The 8-pound shield costs $30 and increases gas mileage by up to 20 percent.
Jonny’s entrepreneurial efforts have earned him national accolades. Twice named to Forbes “30 Under 30” list in the energy category, he also has been featured in “Scientific American” magazine. The notoriety has prompted inquiries from school districts around the world.
Despite all of the years of tests and redesigns, Jonny says his biggest challenge has been gaining approval for a new idea.
“School districts and bus companies are not focusing on the benefits; they’re worried about liabilities,” says Jonny, who plans to study mechanical engineering at Columbia University. “We’re still working to get safety approvals. It’s frustrating, but we won’t give up.”