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Richmond’s First Environmental Hackathon Yields Innovative Ideas

Fifteen teams competed in Earth Hacks, Richmond's first environmental hackathon, co-organized by VCU students and held at the Science Museum of Virginia. (VCU School of Engineering)VCU School of Engineering

College students tackled some big issues at Richmond’s first environmental hackathon. Teams developed prototypes to identify invasive species, reduce pollution with renewable energy and use moss to combat asthma and respiratory issues in low income areas. WCVE intern Lauren Francis has more for Virginia Currents.


At the Science of Museum of Virginia, a group of students talk through code that would program a generator. Team member Kevin Yang describes their idea as a tree-like structure with solar panels that emerge like leaves and rotate according to the sun’s position.

Kevin Yang:  The way that electrical companies work is they continually supply energy even though they’re not using it so what we hope to do with our product is supply the energy only when it is needed.

Yang’s team is one of 15 at Earth Hacks. It’s Richmond’s first environmental hackathon organized by VCU students.  Sanjana Paul says they were given problems focused on pollution, conservation technology and renewable energy. The teams had 24 hours to develop solutions.

Sanjana Paul: The solutions don't necessarily have to be in a specific field or a specific material, they also don't have to be complete. It's more like can you create a proof of concept for this problem with further development, can you actually solve this problem?

Paul worked the previous summer for the DC-based Conservation X Labs, an organization that develops tech solutions to environmental problems. Her boss suggested she bring a hackathon style event to Virginia. She teamed up with other students and then reached out to Dr. Stephen Fong at VCU. He embraced the idea.

Stephen Fong:  There's some things that you can see immediately that you as you walk down the street, and you think you think like hey, I wish I could do something about that and then there's other problems that are so pervasive, And they may be things that you don't see explicitly every day.

Jeremy Hoffman: You know we should be holding environmental hackathons in our kitchens every single night.

Fong teamed up with climate scientist Dr. Jeremy Hoffman to bring the hackathon to the Science Museum.

Hoffman: The environmental problems that we face in the Commonwealth of Virginia are not all together individual of Virginia, but we have such a diverse array of different environmental problems, we're looking to get to work. We want to put minds to work to understand how we solve these problems scientifically, collaboratively with many different backgrounds represented co-producing with the communities that they're going to be implemented in, we want this to happen.

Organizers were intentional about the hackathon being multidisciplinary.

Fong: Our premise for this whole thing is, hey, we want as many people involved that are just interested environmental issues. We don't want the barrier to be for them to feel unprepared we just want their enthusiasm and their interest to be the motivating factor.

Many disciplines can contribute to environmental solutions, says engineering major and hackathon co-organizer Bobby Burrus  He gives the example of an interior designer.

Bobby Burris: We need people to design the interiors of classroom’s so then they're more open to the air so than students can actually breathe in class. That's a real thing.

Throughout the weekend, mentors were available on site to help students work through their prototypes. Recent VCU graduate Margaret Carlos says one of the most important questions is “Who is the user?”

Margaret Carlos: Ultimately you're going to have to create this for a person who is that person and kind of bringing design thinking into it where you kind of look into that human center and realize that no matter how tech-savvy you make it, you do need to make it for somebody who's going to be able to use it whether or not it is a tech solution or social solution.

Prototypes included improving GRTC Pulse routes using machine learning to serve Richmond areas that need public transport the most. Another team developed WindCoin, a way to use the energy from moving trains to power the electric grid. Chemical engineering major Pooja Nanjannavar’s team earned an honorable mention.

Pooja Nanjannavar: Our project was basically about the Ohia tree and Hawaii. It's recently been devastated by this fungal parasite, which has a 90% mortality rate once it's showing symptoms so the problem we were seeking to look at was how can you detect it before it showing symptoms, so you can quarantine it and prevent the spread.

The project calls for a lot of citizen science.  Bioengineering major Setty Duncan says community input is becoming more prominent in environmental solutions.

Setty Duncan: It could really be utilized by this project because the data that's exhibits currently existing right now on the soil PH values is so old it's over 30 years old and that makes it difficult to come to more conclusive um strategies about how we can deal with this issue.

The Ohia tree is sacred in some Hawaiian communities. Some people bury umbilical cords in the soil when planting a new tree. The team emphasized that the kinds of knowledge made possible by such practices is a form of citizen science.

After taking second place at VCU “HealthHacks” at the end of 2017, a team of freshman came back for the gold. Biomedical engineering major Brennan Chaloux [“sha-loo”] describes “Project Hot Spot” as an alternative to nuclear energy in Japan, which sits on multiple fault lines and is prone to earthquakes.

Brennan Chaloux: Instead of traditional turbine style, where water would be pumped down into the earth and steam would rise up and turn a turbine, we decided to go with thermal electrics where certain materials, when presented with a temperature difference, can create  voltage. We decided to use little chips that produce twenty watts each and a whole bunch of those to try to power an entire city.

Project Hot Spot earned a $3,500 scholarship from the The Green Program, an experiential learning initiative that takes students overseas to develop environmental solutions. Team member Zac Hogan is eager to get to Japan, one of the program’s destinations.

Zac Hogan: I think it's super phenomenal that we used Sendai as a microcosm because Japan is one of the countries we can actually go to, so we can even present this idea right there on the forefront and I think that's gonna be a lot of fun.

Other teams have been invited to join Conservation X Labs’ “Digital Makerspace” and compete for a top prize of $20,000. For Virginia Currents, I’m Lauren Francis, WCVE News.