Multidisciplinary student teams solve environmental challenges at EarthHacks

In less than 24 hours, 15 teams of students from Virginia Commonwealth University and other colle...
In less than 24 hours, 15 teams of students from Virginia Commonwealth University and other colleges developed solutions to real-world environmental challenges at the university’s first EarthHacks.

In less than 24 hours, 15 teams of students from Virginia Commonwealth University and other colleges developed solutions to real-world environmental challenges at the university’s first EarthHacks. The innovation-focused competition, conceived and organized by VCU School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, took place at the Science Museum of Virginia March 17-18.

Multidisciplinary teams had 24 hours to learn from mentors, brainstorm, and generate solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems at EarthHacks. Depending upon the problem, proposed solutions could involve any type of material, including the water-filled bins seen here.
Multidisciplinary teams had 24 hours to learn from mentors, brainstorm, and generate solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems at EarthHacks. Depending upon the problem, proposed solutions could involve any type of material, including the water-filled bins seen here.

One group used virtual reality to show how a wall of moss would look outside a VCU residence hall, improving urban air quality. Another team designed filters to keep microplastics out of the James River. Other participants created an interactive app to help kids learn about endangered species.

“This is the first environmental hackathon in the entire state of Virginia,” said EarthHacks student co-founder Sanjana Paul, a junior majoring in electrical engineering. Similar environmental hackathons in the U.S. have been specialized, but the VCU EarthHacks was broader and included a variety of environmental science and conservation interests, she said.

Dozens of students from disciplines such as engineering, computer science, biology, arts and business formed teams of up to four people and chose a problem from one of three categories: pollution, conservation technology or renewable energy. Beginning at 7 p.m. on Saturday, they conducted research, came up with solutions, developed elevator pitches and filmed videos or created logos. By 2:55 p.m. Sunday, they had to be ready to present their projects to the judges.

At VCU Engineering's first EarthHacks, senior graphic design student Emma Coté (left), teamed with Setty Duncan, a junior biology major, and chemical engineering senior Pooja Nanjannavar to develop an idea to investigate the cause of a fungal pathogen that is killing off ohia trees in Hawaii.
At VCU Engineering's first EarthHacks, senior graphic design student Emma Coté (left), teamed with Setty Duncan, a junior biology major, and chemical engineering senior Pooja Nanjannavar to develop an idea to investigate the cause of a fungal pathogen that is killing off ohia trees in Hawaii.

“All the different disciplines came with different perspectives,” said Stephen Fong, Ph.D., associate professor and vice chair of the Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering and the faculty adviser who helped organize EarthHacks. For instance, chemical engineering senior and Honors College member Pooja Nanjannavar teamed with Setty Duncan, a junior biology major, and senior graphic design student Emma Coté to develop an idea to investigate the cause of a fungal pathogen that is killing off ohia trees in Hawaii. The hackathon experience is the essence of "convergence science," which is the concept that innovation comes from bringing different perspective and skills together.

“In what other context do you get students from those three different disciplines working on a project together and coming up with something new that could have real impact? They were thinking about more than just the technical solutions,” Fong said. “You had people who were non-engineers trying to learn fluid dynamics on the fly. That’s great! All the different teams are learning different aspects of the project that they may not be experts in. They’re getting exposed to new things.”

A team of first-year engineering students won first place for their plan to convert a major city in Japan to geothermal energy.

A team of first-year engineering students won first place at VCU Engineering's first EarthHacks for their plan to convert a major city in Japan to geothermal energy: Brennan Chaloux (left), biomedical engineering major; Panth Doshi, biomedical engineering major; Zack Hogan, electrical engineering major; and Omar Karim, biomedical engineering major.
A team of first-year engineering students won first place at VCU Engineering's first EarthHacks for their plan to convert a major city in Japan to geothermal energy: Brennan Chaloux (left), biomedical engineering major; Panth Doshi, biomedical engineering major; Zack Hogan, electrical engineering major; and Omar Karim, biomedical engineering major.

“Environmental science is my whole passion in life,” said Zack Hogan, an electrical engineering major and Honors College member on the team who had previously lived in Japan near Sendai, the area on which the project focused. “I plan to do environmental engineering in grad school and see where that takes me. I feel like this is a really good first step, a nice building block.”

The other three team members, Panth Doshi, Omar Karim and Brennan Chaloux, all biomedical engineering majors and members of the Honors College, had previously competed together at VCU’s HealthHacks, taking second place in that event.

This time, Doshi said, “I wanted to win.”

Chaloux said, “I just like the hackathon experience. Last time, we actually made something really cool — we did this in 24 hours. And then we come to this one, and again, we make something equally cool.” Although the lack of sleep was a challenge, he said.

Karim added, “We were taking shifts to sleep — until we all fell asleep.”

Juniors Sarah Headley (left), mechanical engineering; Djurdje Mitrovic, mechanical engineering; Anisha Rohtagi, computer science; and Sonika Singh, biology and psychology major (pre-med) won second pace at VCU's EarthHacks.
Juniors Sarah Headley (left), mechanical engineering; Djurdje Mitrovic, mechanical engineering; Anisha Rohtagi, computer science; and Sonika Singh, biology and psychology major (pre-med) won second pace at VCU's EarthHacks.

Mentors from VCU’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering, Brandcenter and Department of Sociology; the Science Museum of Virginia, The GREEN Program in Philadelphia; and Conservation X Labs in Washington, D.C., provided help and guidance.

Projects were judged on “awesomeness and feasibility,” originality, impact and presentation. Sponsors provided $3,780 in prizes for the three winning teams.

“People from all majors attended and were able to contribute to solutions, which really shows that we need to think how we’ve redesigned everything and incorporate smarter and more Earth-conscious strategies in everything we do,” said Paul, the student organizer. “So many amazing products and ideas we saw here are actually feasible. Hopefully they’ll come to fruition.”

See the list of winners here.

Dozens of students from disciplines such as engineering, computer science, biology, arts and business formed teams to solve a problem from one of three categories: pollution, conservation technology or renewable energy at VCU Engineering's EarthHacks.
Dozens of students from disciplines such as engineering, computer science, biology, arts and business formed teams to solve a problem from one of three categories: pollution, conservation technology or renewable energy at VCU Engineering's EarthHacks.