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Chicago’s Very Own: Jonny Cohen

If you want to call 17-year-old Jonny Cohen a nerd, go ahead! It’s alright with him.

“I mean, you could describe me as a nerd, but i would take with pride,” Cohen said.

When this Highland Park High School senior was just 12 years old, in seventh grade, he came up with a concept that will change the future of school buses and the environment,  forever.

“Imagine a school bus driving around with a parachute on the back and that’s slowing them down making them less efficient and the shield takes away that parachute allowing the bus to travel through their air more efficiently with less pollution,” Cohen explained.

Cohen is the inventor and founder of the Green Shields Project. Aerodynamic plexiglass shields retrofitted on school buses is an invention that will save the country hundreds of millions of dollars on fuel, plus lower carbon emissions.

This young brainiac came up with the award-winning idea after taking a weekend class at Northwestern University.

“He ran home and told his older sister Aza about it. She said, ‘I’m taking freshman physics, let’s go see Mr. Pujara.’ And that is how it all began,” Cohen’s mom Jackee said.

Mr. Pujara is Kunal Pujara. He’s a physics teacher at Highland Park High School. When he met this young phenom, he found him to be much wiser than his years.

“I was amazed that a seventh grader came up with this idea and I was astounded that no one came up with before,” he said.

Pujara could see the  potential in Cohen’s green idea, immediately.

“Jonny is the most precocious, creative inventor I have ever had the pleasure of meeting, as a teacher or just in life,” Pujara said.

Once the word about Green Shields Project project got out, his star skyrocketed.

After receiving $25,000 from Pepsi, he put together a team and built two prototypes.

He’s been on the Forbes “30 Under 30″ list twice, hobnobbed with politicians and innovators. He’s spoken at the world-renowned 2012 Continuity Forum to discuss the future of social, environmental and economic innovation.

“I got to meet Chris Hues on the same stage before me was Steve Wazniak who is one of my heroes and a lot other entrepreneurs who were giving pitches,” Cohen said.

He’s got Ivy League universities like Harvard, champing at the bit to get him to speak at their youth conferences.  That just scratches the surface. Most recently, he’s received the Nestle  Very Best Youth Award, which honors kids for their academic excellence and dedication to improve the environment.

“I really never envisioned it going this far. I thought that it would just stay as an idea in my head until I really started seeing it come out and become something and that’s when I became excited about it, because seeing your results from your efforts is really fantastic.

But Cohen remains humble. In fact, for him Green Shields isn’t about the notoriety or the money he will imminently get for this invention.

“I think that green shields is about the environment and we only have one environment and we can’t really screw it up there is no other place to go.

“As a  parent I’m just so proud of him because he has followed his dreams, and also some kids are a little bit different in their thinking and i think it’s a nice example of, if they don’t want to do soccer they can do science,” said Jackee Cohen said.

Jonny Cohen: He’s one of Chicago’s Very Own.

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