Make-a-Thon exceeds all expectations

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“Save energy, save money, save the world.”

That’s sophomore Kaitlin Katz’s summation of the second annual Make-a-Thon this past weekend. As her team, Hot Dense State, clustered around an Arduino and a surge protector in the D. H. Hill Library Makerspace, they cited discouraging statistics about energy wastage in the U.S. But they weren’t discouraged—they were doing something about it.

Theirs was one of 25 student teams competing in the four-day challenge to research, design, prototype and build a sustainability solution to address needs in areas such as transportation and the consumption of resources like water and energy. Fueled with actual NC State campus data provided by the University Sustainability Office, the teams worked day and night in the D. H. Hill Makerspace. After less than 48 hours of actual work time, they pitched their projects to a panel of community and industry sustainability experts.

Make-a-thon is organized by the NCSU Libraries, with the University Sustainability Office and four University Housing living and learning villages: Engineering Village, Women in Science and Engineering, EcoVillage and Albright Entrepreneurs Village. In 2016, the event’s debut year, 11 teams competed. This year, 25 teams across 10 colleges and nine living and learning villages vied for a wealth of prizes from sponsors such as Autodesk, IBM, and the NC State Sustainability Fund. (Winners are listed below, and on the Sustainability Office site; for a running account of the day, see the Libraries’ Storify.)

Katz’s team, which took Second Prize this year, was concerned with vampires—electronics and appliances that draw power even when they’re turned off. The quartet of sophomores developed the Wi-Stop, which combines a smart surge protector and a phone app to enable control of individual plugs so you can manage and reduce your electricity consumption. The Wi-Stop could also send alerts to let you know that some unit is fully charged or some appliance is no longer in use.

Make-a-Thon student

“You leave a bunch of lamps on, or your television or desktop computer when you leave the house,” Katz said. “We’re trying to make it so that you don’t have 8-12 wasted hours of electricity usage a day.”

Teammate Erin Beaton chimed in with a list of the worst electronic offenders: “Having a stereo system on standby is a killer.” Meanwhile, Noah Hartzell-Jordan was glancing back and forth between his laptop, his cell phone and an Arduino bristling with LEDs. He’d just roughed-in an app to turn a light on and off from the phone.

After that triumph, they all looked at the store-bought surge protector on the makerspace table. It was time to try to hack it to make a working prototype.

“Unfortunately, none of us is an electrical engineer,” Katz laughed.

No problem—Libraries makerspace staff such as co-organizers Adam Rogers, the Emerging Technology Services Librarian, and Lauren Di Monte, the Cyma Rubin Fellow, were on hand to help, as were 15 mentors ranging from coders to sustainability experts to educators.

“Having mentors available on build day was incredibly helpful, and a great networking opportunity for students too,” Di Monte says. “We’re creating situations where students have to work together on a short timeline, which seems really to motivate them. There’s a general interest in solving real-world problems that NC State inculcates in its students, and this event really allows students to express that.”

In just its second year, the Make-a-Thon more than doubled in size to accommodate those motivated students. All day and all night on Saturday, D. H. Hill buzzed with activity.

“By 5 p.m. on Saturday, the Tech Sandbox was full. Eight to ten teams were working in there, and the Cone Zone had another four teams,” Rogers chuckles. “There were two or three teams each in the Makerspace and the Learning Commons.”

Rogers is proud of the rapid growth of the Make-a-Thon, as well as the cross-campus cooperation it took to pull it all off.

“We had more time to plan and more stable funding from the Sustainability Fund this year. We also opened the event to broader participation and promoted it more,” he says. “We heard from an Economics major that she participated because she really wanted to get experience working with engineers. It’s intentionally interdisciplinary.”

It’s entrepreneurial, as well. Organizers timed the event to happen within a few weeks of the deadlines for several sustainability project deadlines, so that students would have an immediate opportunity to more fully realize the projects that they prototyped at the Make-a-Thon.

These include the NC State Sustainability Fund, which makes up to $120,000 available in grants for campus sustainability projects (deadline Feb. 19); the Lulu eGames, offering a total of $100,000 in prizes for startup ideas (deadline Feb. 20); and InfyMakers, which will award $10,000 to 25 makers to take their innovations to the next level (deadline Feb. 28).

2017 Make-a-Thon winners:

GRAND PRIZE: Humble Gents (Taha Arif, Kevin Holgado, Julien Chomfette, Alper Ender)

For their “Re-Cycle” project, which reclaims abandoned bicycles into a more accessible and affordable civic bike-share program, reducing a city’s carbon footprint while gathering data to improve cycling infrastructure. The team gets a consulting session with designer Aly Khalifa, founder of DesignBox and LYF Shoes, and each member received a New Matter Mod-T 3D Printer and a Spoonflower fabric printing gift certificate.

SECOND PLACE PRIZE: Hot Dense State (Siena Taylor, Erin Beaton, Noah Hartzell-Jordan, Kaitlin Katz)

They won SparkFun Arduino Tinker Kits, a $100 Shapeways 3D printing credit, and Spoonflower fabric printing gift certificates. Their project responded to the fact that up to 10% of the country’s electrical consumption is wasted on electronics that are plugged in but not in active use, equaling hundreds of millions of metric tons of CO2 emissions. They designed a smart surge protector that learns a person’s usage habits and shuts off individual plugs, or even the entire unit, according to activity. Notifications and customization options come to the user through a phone app.

BUILT ON CLOUD PRIZE: Bro-Zone Layer (Alex Leonov, Tyler Hayes, Jacob Hrobak, Thomas Dintino)

Presented by IBM, this prize recognizes the best use of IBM’s Bluemix cloud software in a sustainability solution. Addressing disappointing recycling habits such as the fact that 76% of plastic bottles are simply thrown away, the team designed a smart trash can attachment that identifies common trash items and notifies users if they pitch a recyclable item. Team members split a $1,000 cash prize.

FUSION360 PRIZE: Howl 2 Make A Difference (Mercedes McCarthy, Josephine Steidinger, Rachelle Ransom, Reece Neff)

This prize recognizes the best use of Autodesk’s cloud-connected 3D design platform. Their project addressed the fact that students in tower-like residential buildings with trash chutes tend not to recycle because it’s inconvenient. They designed a “Garbage Glottis,” which augments the existing trash chute with a workable recycling option. Each team member won a 3Dconnexion, a 3D CAD mouse and digital calipers.

SOCIAL MEDIA PRIZE: Clockwork (Grand Cheung, Jason Brannock, Grace So, and David Ko)

This prize goes to the team that best chronicled their design journey on Instagram and Twitter using the hashtag #ncsumakeathon. Their project was a shower head that encourages shorter showers through special lights and a reduction of water pressure, and awards points for water conservation that can be exchanged for AllCampus or Dining Dollars. Each team member took home a smartphone tripod, a Google Cardboard VR set, and Pop Sockets.

Social Media Prize honorable mentions went to the EnviroGeeks and the Jolly Green Giants.