Innovation Summer

A Design Challenge series helps students remotely connect, collaborate and create new solutions

Aug 27 2020 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Students

2020 Design Challenge Finalists

Twenty teams placed in the six competitions over the summer. Ten moved on to the finals in September for a $5000 grand prize and five $2000 prizes devoted to aspects of the Columbia Engineering vision.

See the full list of finalists here.

Collaborating remotely with peers and faculty, dozens of Columbians brought diverse skillsets and inexhaustible creativity to six ambitious design challenges throughout the summer. Many confronted COVID-centric issues, addressing the pandemic and its fallout by tackling cleaner mass transit, safer medical care, better vaccine distribution, reducing inequalities, and mitigating the loneliness of social distancing. The sixth competition invited teams to slow climate change via innovative energy storage.

In late August, the winners of each competition pitched their concepts before panels of expert judges for feedback and a chance to advance to the next round. Just ten teams competed at the finals September 11 for up to $5,000 in funding.

After transitioning to remote learning in March, students have been finding creative ways to stay connected. Columbia Engineering’s newest series of Design Challenges, launched as part of its Summer @SEAS programming, was designed to harness that creative spirit and keep students maximally engaged while remote. Working in teams allowed students to collaborate closely with one another while gaining a deeper understanding of very timely problems.

Reducing Transit Transmission

Rising sophomore Destiny Meyers ’23 is among a group of civil and mechanical engineers looking at how to make mass transit like New York City’s subway less amenable to viral transmission. Having previously partnered with two of her teammates in Columbia’s remote DIY Ventilator Challenge in the spring, Meyers was excited to apply her background in civil engineering to rethinking public transportation. Her team’s concept—Stay In The Loop, a customizable and economical system of frequently sanitized hooks and loops allowing riders to stand balanced on moving trains without having to touch handrails—was inspired in part by theme parks that provide visitors with bracelets and 3D glasses later returned and cleaned for reuse.

“We knew it would be difficult to limit the number of people on the subway, especially since essential workers use it as their primary mode of transportation,” she says from her home in New Mexico. “But if we could decrease the transmission of germs through high-touch surfaces, we might have something special.”

While her teammates explored hook prototypes and means of sterilizing mechanisms, Meyers focused on designing the loops—initially investigating whether plastic or fabric would make the most sense and then, after calculating that fabric would be both cheaper and easier to clean, utilizing her sewing skills to design and iterate a prototype. The group met frequently online and regularly consulted with peers and faculty like civil engineering Professor Sharon Di and electrical engineering Senior Lecturer David Vallancourt on fine-tuning their design, documenting their work, and mapping out potential next steps.

The team has continued to hone their system after earning second place at the first round of competition in July, connecting with transit officials in Miami-Dade for feedback and hopefully to participate in a future pilot program. They also plan to apply for an ignition grant from Columbia to support their progress.

I’m amazed at the progress we made working from the unknown to the known. We had no idea that we’d end up creating a platform that would make a difference to first-years as we learned the importance of centering design on the user.

Martha Wangechi Njuguna
Class of 2024

A representation of VaxFlask.

Improving Access to Vaccines

For the time being prevention is our best weapon against the pandemic and others yet to come, but vaccines will hopefully become available sooner rather than later. For biomedical engineer Min Tsou ’23, rising to the challenge of improving vaccine access in moments of extreme demand was a huge draw—especially once she learned that the special borosilicate glass used in vials is in perilously short supply.

Joining forces with biologist Bhoomika Kumar ’23CC and computer scientist Erin Liang ’23, Tsou is exploring creating a new multidose vial at less cost using cheaper materials while still seamlessly accommodating all the logistical issues of scaling up production within existing manufacturing and distribution processes. After extensive R&D, they came up with VaxFlask, a modular design which holds four doses per vial using just 14% of the scarce borosilicate glass.

Since constraints of time and equipment made it tough to present judges with a tangible product, the team—dubbed The Immunogeniuses—focused on the unique learning experience the challenge entailed, with extensive access to faculty experts and industry mentors alike imparting invaluable insights into the multidimensional contexts of delivering pharmaceuticals to patients.

“Our concept evolved a lot as we spoke with vaccine manufacturers,” Tsou says from home in Hawaii. “It really showed how important it is to consult with industry professionals at every stage of the process. Getting all the feedback helped us follow FDA regulations and develop a design that can be easily incorporated into existing production lines.”

Like many of their fellow teams, The Immunogeniuses approached the competition as a launching pad for further exploration of their concept. “In addition to working on 3D-printing a prototype, we’re in the process of reaching out to vial manufacturers for prototyping as well as pharmaceutical companies potentially interested in testing their vaccines in VaxFlask,” Tsou says. “It’s been incredibly rewarding to work on solving an important real-world issue affecting the health and lifestyles of billions worldwide.” After taking second in the first round, the team ultimately earned the $5000 grand prize, which they’re already investing in prototyping and initial tests.

A graphic representation of the prenatal care device.

Enhancing Communication

Pandemic notwithstanding, countless patients still need medical attention for a myriad of issues, routine and otherwise. For people who are hearing-impaired, particularly in developing nations, every step of that process can be a slog—a disproportionate burden that inspired a project known as Communic-aid for the challenge about reducing inequities. After extensive research, an international team of incoming data science and business analytics M.S. candidates devised an array of communication aids to help convey complex descriptions and terminologies. Their initial focus: working with India’s Ministry of Social Justice and Empowerment to assist deaf COVID patients in the state of Rajasthan.

“Based on the feedback, we’re planning to expand to cover multiple diseases across the hospital environment,” says Tushar Agrawal MS’22 from home in Dubai. “Next up, we’re recreating our visual aids in several regional languages and Indian Sign Language.” After taking second place in the first round, the Communic-aid team went on to win the $2000 prize in the finals’ “Connected” category. They’re now in the process of applying for an ignition grant to extend and refine their work.

In the challenge devoted to making the overall practice of medicine safer, three researchers from Professor Kristin MyersSoft Tissue Lab teamed up with a peer from Tuskegee University to explore how smarter communication could help keep expecting mothers out of the hospital as much as possible. Streamlining existing technologies, the team sought to improve telemedicine for prenatal care with a versatile and easy-to-use device helping pregnant women measure vitals at home and remotely coordinate with physicians.

“The thing that surprised me the most was that we spent more time thinking and researching and talking to doctors and new moms about flaws in the system and potential improvements than actually working on our prototype,” says mechanical engineer Arielle Feder ’22 from Westchester County, New York. “In the end, our solution felt relatively simple and I was surprised that nothing like it was already implemented. It taught me the importance of honing in on the problem before jumping to solutions, and that the most effective solution does not have to be the most complicated.”

Beyond medicine, human fellowship is no less important to public health—among students as much as anyone. For the challenge geared to facilitating social interaction in times of COVID, a diverse team worked out Columbia Connect, a hyperlocal network linking distant Columbians around the world.

“Our initial ideas revolved around different groups of people and how to make online interaction more intimate until we settled on a platform for incoming freshmen like me,” says aspiring computer scientist Martha Wangechi Njuguna ’24 from her home in Nairobi, Kenya. Aiming to create spaces for online interaction as natural as meeting in person, the group hosts a variety of virtual events and curates tips, memes, playlists and more for students. Along the way, they’ve consulted with Professors Lydia Chilton and Harry West on making their design as user-friendly as possible.

“I’m amazed at the progress we made working from the unknown to the known,” Njuguna says. “We had no idea that we’d end up creating a platform that would make a difference to first-years as we learned the importance of centering design on the user.” After earning first place in their competition, the team is currently collaborating with student groups and fostering self-sustaining virtual communities.

Smarter Energy Storage

In the end, the challenges gave many participants new insight into how their talents can best be used to improve human conditions. For a group of incoming first-years, the competition combating climate change through smarter energy storage marked their inaugural experience as Columbia engineers. As Team Beyond Organic, the novices developed a flexible system using renewables to charge battery-powered hydroponic farms with lower carbon emissions and using far fewer resources than conventional farming techniques—earning first place in their competition’s initial round in the process.

“I really enjoyed learning how renewables fit into the electrical grid and want to continue on that topic during my time at Columbia,” says aspiring earth and environmental engineer Andrew Fagerheim ’24 from home in upstate New York. “I’m so glad to have had the experience because it’s given me so much to think about and look forward to over the next few years.”