Students redesign play for children with disabilities at 2nd annual Impact-a-Thon


November 30, 2015

The high-ceilinged room is divided in half. On one side, students stand behind elaborate diagrams and prototypes, waiting for the judges to make their rounds. On the other, their futures: entrepreneurs whose ideas led them to launch their own companies, which aim to improve the world through technology. Students, judges, and entrepreneurs alike came together on Friday, November 14th for the second annual Innovation Palooza and Impact-a-Thon student competition, all with the same goal in mind.

Over the course of the four-hour event, demonstrations from leading tech companies such as 4Moms, Amazon Robotics, Kennametal, and more, interspersed with lightning talks from pioneers of innovation provided students with a look into the doors their degrees can open. Fifteen interdisciplinary student teams from across the university displayed the prototypes and ideas they’d developed over the course of three days in response to the Impact-a-Thon challenge.

The event began with an encouraging word from Michael Bruce, president and CEO of inScope Technologies International, Inc. In the first of the day’s lightning talks, he reminded the student participants that innovation requires a willingness to venture off the beaten path. “You can’t just take the messages that are sold to you day in and day out,” he said. “That’s the enemy of innovation.” Bruce holds a joint MS/MBA from Carnegie Mellon, and currently sits on the College of Engineering Dean’s Advocacy Council.

Throughout the event, students heard insights from two other industry leaders: former Vice President of Research and Development at Johnson & Johnson Alexis Roberts-McIntosh and Senior Operating Partner at MCM Capital Harry Shimp. The event’s three lightning talks were translated in real-time by artist Kurt Hess into images on paper, creating a running, hand-drawn record of the event.

These talks were interspersed throughout the day, creating short diversions from the ongoing Impact-a-Thon presentations and judging.

“The particular challenge of this year’s competition is to come up with innovative ways to make playgrounds more accessible to children with physical and cognitive disabilities,” explained College of Engineering Dean Jim Garrett in his opening remarks for the event, co-sponsored by the College of Engineering and the Integrated Innovation Institute.

Each Impact-a-Thon team approached this problem in its own unique way. Some teams chose to create new pieces of playground equipment that put the child’s needs at the heart of the design. Others conceived of whole playgrounds that seek to bring children together regardless of their ability levels, encouraging friendship and cooperation.

The winner of the third prize, a team from the Integrated Innovation Institute, chose to take their playground idea on the road. Their design involved a group of storage containers with fold-down sides, loaded onto trucks. Playground equipment is built into the inside of the containers, so that when they are lined up and the sides folded down, they create a community play space.

“The playground is populated with equipment designed to facilitate group play,” explained master’s student Rohith Gowda. “Multi-user swings, a sensory tunnel to move through, sensory interaction cubes, and a Zen garden for calm play. It’s free-form, to let kids devise their own rules.

”Then, once the children are finished playing, the sides of the containers are folded up and the trucks drive off to bring the experience to another community.

A few teams even chose to reimagine the governmental and economic structures that determine how playgrounds are built in the first place. One such team received second place for their idea for a modular playground design that not only allows children of all levels of ability to play together, but also creates a system that allows neighborhoods to customize their playgrounds based on their residents’ specific needs.

“When it comes down to it, accessibility is an institutional issue,” explained Stephen Nomura, master’s student at the Integrated Innovation Institute. “People only want their taxes to pay for things that benefit their own children.”

To respond to this, the team designed a modular playground system with elements that can be customized to fit the specific needs of a community’s children. The proposed business model allows community planners to submit the specific disability information of their residents. A customized playground is then designed and installed, ensuring the community only receives—and pays for—exactly what it needs.

In the end, first place and the $1,000 prize was awarded to The Treblecade—designed by engineering students Braden Kell, Allen Miller, Judy Han, and Matthew Powell-Palm. This group's remarkable piece of equipment is designed to allow children with autism to interact comfortably with one another and play songs collaboratively using touch sensors.

“The great thing about working with this team is that when it came to this project, we all had similar mindsets, but very different skillsets,” explained Miller. “It’s great to look around and see the variety of judges and team members all taking interest in innovating for positive change.”

Though every idea developed for the Impact-a-Thon was vastly different, these young innovators have reimagined the future of play as one that levels the playing field, so that all children can learn to see each other as equals.

See a recap of the day's events through social media on Storify.