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MIT student blogger Kirsten L. '15

ATHack by Kirsten L. '15

A day well spent helping others

One of the amazing things about going to a techy school like MIT is that there are always tons of opportunities to apply what you know while building something awesome. Some people do it through UROPs. Some people do it through clubs. Some people do it through hackathons. Hackathons are usually a one day event (some run for a full 24 hours, some less) where teams are presented with an opportunity to come up with an idea and actually make it. Some are more free form and allow teams to create a solution to a problem they define. Others are more focused and have everyone work on developing a solution to the same challenge.

This past weekend, I took part in my first hackathon- The Assistive Technologies Hackathon (or ATHack for short). The goal of ATHack was to pair teams of MIT students with people living with disabilities to solve a problem in the home. It’s a unique opportunity to put our engineering skills to the test and help improve someone’s life.

I’ve always felt that most hackathons are really for Course 6 (Computer Science and Electrical Engineering) students. However, our team of Mechanical Engineers and I had the opportunity to contribute at this hackathon since we were expected to physically build something for our client. We met with our client a couple times to try and design a “hands-free” walker which would help him use his trunk muscles instead of his arms to support his body as he walked.

As a team, we met together before the hackathon (which was allowed at this competition) to brainstorm some ideas. Empowered by a set of Tinker Toys, we created this very impressive model of what we wanted to build.

On the day of the event…
My team and I met at 8:30 AM in this cool lab space called Beaver Works. I’d never been to the space before, but I was impressed by how funky the space was. Plus, they had this cool beaver light.

Our team got to work by gathering the materials we would need to build the framework for our walking device, which was mostly PVC and a lot of fittings. We had some fun playing with all our materials…

Upper L: Sherry (’15) playing with squishy material | Upper R: Me playing with our suspender support

Once we gathered our materials, we moved on to figuring out the general dimensions we needed to make the walker based off of our client’s body dimensions. We calculated the center of mass to determine the length of the supports we needed to provide stability.

Right: Jasmine (’15) explaining the dimensions.

After we figured out the general geometry, we created a CAD model of our walker (and by we, I mean mostly our MFP, Most Focused Player, Morgan ’15).

Then we got to cutting PVC, fitting the pieces together, and bending plates to put together our walker.

Left & Above: Sherry and Jasmine working hard to build. | Right: Natzem and Sherry working to bend metal.

Finally, we ended up with a beautiful prototype!
(Don’t forget- Beauty is in the eye of the beholder :P)

We got to test out the prototype with our client at the end of the day, which was slightly terrifying (since our structure was out of PVC and not designed to support his weight at this point) and also amazing. I teared up a little when I got to see him in the device for the first time. We’re so thankful to have worked with our amazing client and his parents, who were so willing to help us along the way.

At the end of the day, we won Honorable Mention! We were all surprised, but honored. We all just had such a great time getting to work together. Somewhere in all that fun we actually were productive! I’ll admit that initially I wasn’t too excited to spend one long day working hard in the shop… but I had one of the best Saturdays I’ve had in a long time. It was amazing “working” with my teammates and so wonderful to get to work on something so meaningful. Day very well spent :)