URI engineering students win awards at engineering ‘hackathon’

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Students quickly created medical devices using body sensors


KINGSTON, R.I. – July 2, 2015 – Two University of Rhode Island engineering students won awards last month for their efforts to quickly create wearable medical devices at a “hackathon” at the Body Sensor Network Conference at Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


A team led by Nick Constant of West Warwick won the event’s Best Design Award, while Cody Goldberg of Amherst, N.H. was part of a team that won the Best Application Award.


“A hackathon is an event designed to come up with an inelegant solution to something and to make a quick prototype,” explained Constant, who earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering at URI in May and will begin graduate studies at URI this fall. “Because the whole event only lasts a short time, the solution doesn’t have to look good or be fancy. It just has to work.”

The fast-paced, three-day event began with the participants proposing project ideas and recruiting others to work on the project. Constant proposed what he called Big Ears, a headphone-like device with sensors for monitoring a patient’s vital signs and walking gait so doctors and physical therapists can quantify a patient’s progress during rehabilitation.


“I had no idea what I wanted to do when I got there, but this idea came to me 15 minutes before we had to make the pitch,” Constant said. “Two other participants immediately said they wanted to join my team.”


Goldberg, who will be a senior biomedical engineering major in the fall, was attracted to a proposal to create a device to monitor the health of patients waiting to be seen by doctors.


“When a hospital is flooded with patients, like after the Boston Marathon bombing, it needs a way to manage the influx. Our device was meant to keep track of all the patients and make sure they didn’t have any complications while they were waiting to be seen,” he said. “If the device detected problems, that patient would be moved up the priority queue.”


Goldberg, who was the team’s programmer, said the focus of his project was to collect as much data as possible from sensors and relay that information to a centralized medical team.


After the first day of the event, each team made a presentation on the status of their project, and at the end of the third day the teams were required to demonstrate their completed device to a group of judges and to the conference attendees.


“All they gave us to start with was an Intel circuit board and a bunch of sensors,” said Constant. “But we had the MIT labs at our disposal, and they had tons of tools and other equipment we could use.”


In the end, the finished products lived up to Constant’s description – they were highly inelegant solutions. His Big Ears device consisted of a circuit board sitting on his shoulder, sensors wrapped around his ear, and an LCD screen attached to his chest flashing green or red lights. Goldberg wore his team’s inelegant device, dubbed Queue EZ, during the final presentation, which repeatedly flashed his heart rate, a rate he said was unusually high because he was nervous.


The students, advised by URI Assistant Professor Kunal Mankodiya, agreed the event was a valuable experience. Because most of the other participants were from distant countries – Constant’s teammates were from Slovenia, Italy and Bangladesh – there were cultural barriers they had to overcome.


“It was one of my first experiences working with a team that was not from America,” Constant noted. “So it helped me learn to work with an international team.”


“It was a great networking opportunity, too,” Goldberg said. “We got to talk to people from Intel and Sony and professors at MIT, who discussed their vision of the future of technology. That was entertaining.”


Mankodiya is already beginning to plan a Wearable Technology Hackathon at URI during the coming school year.


Photo caption: URI student Nick Constant demonstrates the wearable technology he won an award for at a hackathon last month. (Photo courtesy of Nick Constant.)