Students build assistive technologies at MIT’s annual ATHack

On Saturday, March 3, the Beaver Works facility was alive with hardworking university students collaborating with Boston-area citizens with disabilities. Wood and metal parts, PVC piping, laptops, pizza, and a host of gadgets were spread around the rooms. The atmosphere was equal parts boisterous and quietly contemplative.

The participants had gathered for the Assistive Technologies Hackathon (ATHack) hosted annually by MIT. It is a one-day event that brings people living with disabilities — called co-designers — together with undergraduate, graduate, and PhD students from multiple disciplines to build prototypes of assistive devices. For 10 hours, the students and co-designers worked in teams to build an accessible beanbag-toss game, a personalized blood pressure cuff, a portable and collapsible shower chair, battery and structural optimizations for power soccer league wheelchairs, and more.

MIT undergraduates Abdalla Osman (left) and Mohammed Nasir (right) work on optimizing a power soccer chair. Photo: Glen Cooper

“Our goal [for ATHack] is to inspire everyone there to think about accessibility and to pursue projects in this space in the future,” said Jaya Narain, co-founder and co-organizer of the event and a graduate student in mechanical engineering at MIT.

The event was founded in 2014 by a group of MIT students who were inspired by an assistive technologies class created by the late professor Seth Teller. As with the class, which is still offered each fall, a team of students is paired with a member of the Greater Boston community who has a disability, and they work together to solve an accessibility issue that the co-designer faces.

“Hopefully, [ATHack] inspires people to look for projects that are closer to home, as opposed to looking for that next big thing to solve,” said Ishwarya Ananthabhotla, co-founder and co-organizer of the event and a graduate student in the Media Lab at MIT. “There are interesting problems right around you.”

This year, 70 students and 13 co-designers formed 16 teams. At the end of the day, prizes were awarded in three different categories: co-designer collaboration, functionality, and engineering design.

A hands-on experience with meaningful results

“I had never done a hackathon before ... and I wanted to do this one because I think it’s different from other big hackathons,” said Jeba Sania, an MIT undergraduate student in electrical engineering and computer science. “We work with problems that have direct solutions immediately. ... I’ve always wanted to get into tech that has a direct social impact.”

Sania was part of a team that worked with Juan Ramirez, a power soccer player who plans to compete in the national tournament this June. Ramirez joined the hackathon as a co-designer to search for a way to modify his soccer team’s chairs for better kicking performance — within the rules of the league, of course.

Kicking performance is directly related to how fast players’ chairs can spin. At the hackathon, the students devised a solution to use ultracapacitors that could release energy with a burst while spinning, and then slowly charge up again. They also developed a prototype wireless communication device with buttons and colored lights that would allow players to strategize more easily.

“Being able to have something with a physical structure with big buttons helps with communications,” said Ramirez. “I’m very excited about these solutions that [the students] have brought up. ... They are taking this very seriously, and I’m so surprised by the outcome.”

At the end of the day, Ramirez’s team won second place in the co-designer collaboration category.

“My goal in life is to keep making technology and to produce things that help others,” said Sania, who plans to enroll in the assistive technologies course that inspired ATHack.

“[ATHack] is a really cool way to build technical skills but also make a product that has actual meaningful impact — we can work directly with a partner to make something that’s immediately useful in their lives,” said Nathan Duarte, another member of Ramirez’s team, and an undergraduate student currently doing research in biomedical engineering at Harvard. 

In addition to acquiring unique skills and delivering social impact, students were also drawn to ATHack because of the interdisciplinary setting and opportunity to step outside of academic norms.

“My previous research experience was about wearable robotics,” said Hyung-Geun Song, a PhD student in the Harvard-MIT Program in Health Sciences and Technology. “People say you do wearable robotics research to help people, but what you actually do is quite far from that. [ATHack is] closer to doing something that helps people, instead of just doing something fancy.”

Song was part of a team that built a blood pressure cuff prototype operated with one hand. Their co-designer, Ellen Kornmehl, had lost her right arm because of a sarcoma. The cuff that the team built contains straps from snowboarding boots that would allow her to easily ratchet it tighter. The team received first place in the engineering design category.

Not your average hackathon

ATHack is unique in both its structure and output. Most hackathons operate on a first-come-first-served and one-size-fits-all basis in terms of materials. During those hackathons, participants must create something using items from a limited stockroom, and when the items run out or are not in stock, then the participants must rethink their plans. ATHack is different as it involves two weeks of prior planning, which allows the organizers to gather the materials that each team of students and a co-designer requests beforehand. Therefore, on the day of the event, the teams spend most of their time building and troubleshooting.

Each year, ATHack also keeps a database of the prototypes that the participants have created. “Even though our project might not be successful, we have documentation on what we tried and thought of, and someone else can go through it and learn from what we did,” said Thanh Nguyen, an MIT undergraduate in mechanical engineering. “Even if we don’t have a successful project, someone else will learn from what we did.”

The interaction between the co-designers and the students is also distinct, ATHack focuses on partnership in problem-solving rather than a two-step process in which end users and developers are kept at a distance.

Amanda Fike, a co-organizer and a mechanical engineering undergraduate student at MIT, explained that running and completing a successful ATHack event is “one of the best feelings in the world. [ATHack] gets people who never thought about doing anything related to assistive technology really interested and aware of the field and aware of problems that never occur in their own day-to-day.” 

MIT students Sally Beiruti, an undergraduate student in mechanical engineering, Tally Portnoi, a graduate student in electrical engineering and computer science, and Hosea Siu, an aerospace engineering PhD student, also co-organized the event. Other volunteers included Kurt Krueger and Richard Landry from Lincoln Laboratory, who staffed the machine shop, as well as Ryan McKindles, also from Lincoln Laboratory, who volunteered as a mentor. MIT mechanical engineering graduate students Guillermo Diaz Lankenau and Michael Buchman also worked in the shop.

As the 12-hour event came to a close and the awards were announced, Kornmehl, who was the co-designer for two ATHack teams, stood up to address the room: “I’m so impressed with all of you. I thank you for being so engaged.”