IT HASN'T taken Austin Kyle Lankford long to make his mark on the world. At age 12, he's already won two citizenship awards during his early school years, taken first place in photography contests and gotten recognition for his 4-H woodwork.
And now the seventh-grader from the Banner School in Westminster is competing in a national invention competition this weekend in Washington.
Austin's invention -- a flotation device that helps boaters right a capsized canoe -- is one of this year's 45 innovative entries that might make people wonder why they didn't think of it themselves.
The invention stemmed from a school project and a 50-mile Boy Scout canoeing trip that took Austin and his dad, Mark Lankford, 42, on the Potomac River.
"The new guys like me had to learn the experience of flipping the canoe over," said Austin, who lives in Westminster. Even with all the brute strength and effort they could muster, they had a hard time turning over the canoe, which quickly filled up with water every time it flipped over.
The experience left a lasting impression on Austin. Then, over dinner one night, according to his dad, Austin said, "You know, if I really had to invent something, I would invent something that would make canoeing safer."
"Then he said, 'Why don't we put life jackets on canoes?' I said, 'Austin, it's worth some thought,' " said his father.
So began the researching, brainstorming and tinkering, from which emerged the "Canoe P.F.D." Austin hopes it will help save the lives of rookie boaters who find themselves battling rough waters.
Austin's "canoe personal flotation device" consists of three inflatable cushions that go underneath the seats. Under the cushions themselves are cans of pressurized air, which push the cushions out to stabilize the capsized canoe.
"All you do is put your hand underneath the canoe and pull the valve and the cushions would inflate and flip right out," Austin said.
The state Department of Natural Resources estimates that 35 to 40 Maryland residents die each year because of boating accidents, although the agency doesn't keep statistics on how many of those deaths are from canoeing accidents.
So far this year, according to a DNR spokesman, 30 people have drowned in boating accidents in the state. That's up from 17 people the same time last year.
"I guess . . . anything to right a capsized canoe is a good idea," said Cpl. Robert Davis, a DNR recruitment and community rTC outreach officer. "Canoes by their very nature are very unstable, to a novice, anyway."
Austin's creation joins the ranks of the "childproof washing machine"and the "pocket diaper," other bright inventions that made it to the final rounds of the Invent America! competition, a contest that culls ideas from the most creative and tinkering young minds in the nation.
The competition calls on young inventors from kindergarten to eighth grade to use creative problem-solving skills. More than 30,000 public and private schools and millions of students from across the nation entered the annual contest, launched in 1987 by then-Vice President George Bush to spark old-fashioned American ingenuity. Five regional winners in nine grade categories are competing for national prizes, which include $500 savings bonds. Past winners include a Kentucky kindergartner's invention of an after-glow light bulb and an Idaho sixth-grader's invention of an invisible splatter guard.
Austin's invention beat out such entries as sunlight protection for babies and a machine that makes pizza in under 10 seconds to win the contest at the Banner School, a private school with an enrollment of about 130 students. His entry took the state competition, then the 10-state regional competition, to qualify himfor the nationals.
"I really didn't think I would make it this far because I thought it was only the school contest I was entering," said Austin. "I feel proud of myself because I didn't think I would achieve anything like this. I thought we were just going to do something fun."
So far, the fruits of his labor have won him a $500 savings bond for his regional victory, a trip to Washington for the national competition, a camera and the chance to meet the president.
If he gets a patent for his invention, he hopes to capitalize on American enterprise and "get some profit off of it and save lives," he said. "And really, make other people feel safe."
Sunday kicks off the National Invent America! Week Celebration in Washington D.C. Visit the Freedom Plaza, 14th Street and Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W., from 1 p.m. to 3:30 p.m. to see a display of inventions of the 45 regional winners. There will be entertainment, food, games and crafts. Free admission. Call (703) 684-1836.