Student-led Makeathon Serves Special Needs

A unique design sprint focused on veterans comes to Columbia

May 13 2020 | By Jesse Adams | Photo Credit: Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM)

In the mass market, consumers with singular needs—such as amputees and paralytics—can routinely feel overlooked.

For Sara Cummings MS’20, a graduating student in mechanical engineering and teaching assistant in design-oriented courses, such gaps in the marketplace are personal. Born to a military family, she grew up witnessing firsthand the particular challenges of soldiers and veterans. This past year, she took on a huge opportunity to give back by joining forces with Tikkun Olam Makers (TOM), a global humanitarian organization that convenes innovators with “need knowers”—people with personal experience of a neglected challenge—to collaborate on practical solutions.

“Design is really what I’m passionate about, and I loved the idea of being the person who could ensure that great engineering would have a positive real-world impact,” says Cummings.

TOM partners with institutions worldwide to sponsor 48-hour “makeathons” fostering novel human-centered designs with the potential of being widely produced at low cost, and then puts all of the work open-source online for anyone to adopt or adapt. The group had long wanted to co-host a competition with Columbia, explains Cummings, but the idea only became truly feasible early this year when the university debuted the radically-expanded new Makerspace—a 3,000 square feet facility fully equipped with an array of tools for innovation. As a “super user,” she was uniquely qualified to oversee a makeathon at Columbia Engineering—but it wouldn’t be easy. The gathering would ultimately be the culmination of months of research, planning, and recruitment.

Last fall, she started exploring the possibilities with TOM’s director of communities in North America, Maayan Keren ’19SIPA, CEO Edun Sela ’17SIPA, and others from the organization to begin organizing a weekend-long makeathon.

From early on, Cummings knew she wanted the competition to incorporate the needs of veterans. “It seemed like there was no better way for me to finish up my college experience than by giving back to the military community,” she says.

With Keren, Cummings recruited half a dozen need knowers and more than 50 design-minded students spanning Columbia and other universities in New York City and beyond. Then, she matched up the diverse roster of talent to form seven versatile teams specially tailored to take on each challenge, ranging from helping an osteoarthritic veteran stand up to restoring the calligraphic abilities of an artist paralyzed from a neuromuscular disease.

Mechanical engineer Sara Cummings MS’20 spearheaded the effort to bring TOM to Columbia.

The teams convened for the first time on February 7, meeting each other and the need knowers, getting acquainted with all the equipment at hand in the Makerspace, and mapping out game plans for the two-day sprint exactly two weeks later. The afternoon of Friday, February 21, a talk from Harry West, a professor of practice in mechanical engineering and industrial engineering and operations research who focuses on human-centered design, kicked off the makeathon.

“We have to bring a fresh eye to the problem—to recognize needs, aspirations, and wants that are very different from ours,” West told the crowd. “We don’t have the constraints of mass production to limit what we can do, but we also don’t have the advantage of mass production to bring down costs. We have to be clever, we have to find new ways to solve problems, we have to be ingenious—but that’s what engineers do.”

After a weekend spent hashing out solutions, the teams demonstrated prototypes addressing each challenge at a Sunday evening showcase.

One crafted a waterproof artificial leg with an auto-locking knee joint for a fraction of the cost of their need knower’s commercially-produced prosthetic, while another created a customizable umbrella mount for wheelchairs far sturdier and more adjustable than almost any alternative on the market. Another team built a lightweight protective brace to prevent wheelchair damage during air travel.

One group addressed two distinct challenges faced by a disabled army veteran from nearby Manhattanville, engineering both a mechanized seat designed to help him stand and a special pillow promoting better sleep. Two teams took on the challenges of a Columbia graduate student with a neuromuscular disease that has rendered her quadriplegic and made it difficult for her to practice calligraphy, an interest she had picked up while in Japan. One team made an adjustable thermal glove to help people with poor circulation acclimate to different temperatures, while the other developed a calligraphy machine known as the ShodoBot equipped with brush, ink, and eye-tracking software.

Design is really what I’m passionate about, and I loved the idea of being the person who could ensure that great engineering would have a positive real-world impact.

Sara Cummings
MS’20

“We created a machine that granted five degrees of freedom for the brush, building on top of existing 3D printer concepts,” says biomedical engineering major Jonah Dewing ’22, who worked on mechanical design and assembly. “The extra angles allowed us to add brush tilting and pressure differences that are not part of current drawing machines, but vital to Japanese calligraphy. We wanted our need knower to feel like she has control over the brush—not just having the machine spit out a set of characters.”

Judges David Putrino, director of rehabilitation innovation for the Mount Sinai Health System, Rachel Ballew ’20GSAS, president of U.S. Military Veterans of Columbia University, and Bill Miller, lab manager of the Makerspace, surveyed each project and interviewed the teams. In the end, they selected two for special recognition: the wheelchair umbrella team, for extensive documentation and ready reproducibility, and the ShodoBot group, for inventing a product unlike any they’d ever seen. All of the projects’ specs then went online for future fine-tuning—including further efforts from some of the team members.

“I’ve gotten a lot of meaningful knowledge from the whole experience,” says Dewing, who has continued collaborating with his group since the makeathon. “Due to the emphasis on documentation, I realized that designing is not necessarily a one-time process—factors like replicability and ease of access to parts can be more important than taking shortcuts with more complicated and flashy designs.”

Plus, he gained a deeper appreciation of the centrality of human users to the design process. “Seeing our need knower’s excitement was heartwarming and added true meaning to the product we were making,” Dewing says. “The user experience is, and should be, a top priority in every build and product.”