Student teams solve environmental challenges at EarthHacks
March 22, 2018

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, an innovation-focused competition conceived and organized by VCU School of Engineering’s Department of Chemical and Life Science Engineering. The March 17-18 challenge held at the Science Museum of Virginia attracted several Honors College participants, including the first-place winners (pictured above).

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.

“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 Honors College engineering students won first place for their plan to convert a major city in Japan to geothermal energy. 

“Environmental science is my whole passion in life,” said Zack Hogan, an electrical engineering major 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, had previously competed together at VCU’s HealthHacks, taking second place in that event. This time, Doshi said, “I wanted to win.”

Other Honors participants included Meghan Garrity, Sean Kotrola, Edward Huffer and Nathan Nguyen (pictured below). Their project, B.O.A.T. (Boat Output Augmentation Technology), proposed using Peltier plates to capture excess heat in icelandic fishing vessels, minimizing Iceland's carbon emission while being minimally invasive to the environment. “By adding Peltier plates to the fishing vessel's engine, we are able to capture the excess heat from the engine and convert it into energy,” the team wrote. “With this energy, the Peltier plates are able to power a series of L.E.D. lights throughout the ship, decreasing the amount of fossil fuels needed for the fishing vessel to function.”

Four students working on engineering project

Neha Potdar’s project, Name That Thing, is an app with a game system that serves as a database to allow people to learn about various species of animals and plants. To aid in database search, the app consists of reverse photo search paired with geographical locating feature to improve data collection.

“The inspiration that started this project was to enhance the current conservation process by using technology to educate people of all ages about species categorized outside and within the endangered group,” she wrote. “This would introduce next generation data collection by letting the general public to contribute and help lessen the severity of the wildlife conservation issue.”

Tanya Ravi and Devina Thapa designed a University Solar Panel Feasibility Analysis. Their goal is to develop an application that analyzes available surface area on various urban university rooftops, etc. and determine the amount of money and pollution that would be saved with the implementation of solar panels.

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 EarthHacks student co-founder Sanjana Paul, a junior majoring in electrical engineering. “So many amazing products and ideas we saw here are actually feasible. Hopefully they’ll come to fruition.”