HYPOTHEkids See the Light!

Sep 16 2014 | By Holly Evarts | Photo: Timothy Lee Photographers

Twenty-five NYC high school students were introduced this summer to engineering design and entrepreneurship through a new six-week program—the HYPOTHEkids (Hk) Maker Lab—in the School’s Department of Biomedical Engineering (BME). Led by BME Lecturer Aaron Kyle, the students utilized their newfound engineering design skills to devise innovative solutions to global health technology needs. Hk Maker Lab is the result of a collaborative effort between BME and HYPOTHEkids, a K-12 STEM education initiative of Harlem Biospace, a co-working lab space for NYC biotech startups that was founded by Biomedical Engineering Associate Professor Sam Sia and Christine Kovich and developed in partnership with the New York City Economic Development Corporation (NYCEDC).

“We wanted to give students who normally wouldn't have this type of experience an opportunity to identify biomedical problems and to apply the engineering design process to create appropriate solutions,” says Kyle. The program, free for all the students, primarily recruited underrepresented minority participants from Title I schools throughout the city, is supported by Columbia Engineering and Harlem Biospace.

The summer session culminated in a pitch fest on August 21, when six teams presented their innovative work to an audience of family members, teachers, Columbia Engineering faculty, and industry representatives. A panel of judges, including Eric Gertler, executive vice president and managing director of the Center for Economic Transformation at the NYCEDC; Nadia Gil, director of finance at Cognizant Technology Solutions; Tom Critchlow, head of Google’s maker initiatives; Eric Kim, an associate at New Leaf Venture Partners; Beth Polish, co-founder and current CFO/COO of iVillage; and Sia debated the merits of each project, which included prototypes ranging from a granular jamming device for extracting babies during difficult deliveries to a low-cost water purification system that utilizes coffee filters and UV light.

The judges selected two winning teams: VitaLight and Euphoria. The VitaLight team, which included Matthew Chung, Michael Harris, Arif Mahmud, and Nebil Salih, created a low-cost, solar-powered LED light array that could illuminate medical wards during the frequent blackouts that occur in low-resource settings. Team Euphoria, which included Jenny Dong, Mahfuzul Islam, Enkel Prifit, and Ruiqui (Rachel) Wang, designed a low-cost, feedback-controlled neonatal warming device. Both teams will have the opportunity to continue developing their projects over the next year at Harlem Biospace.

For some students, the experience evoked a timeless adage: If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again.

“The most important thing I learned is that you must fail multiple times on your way to success,” says sixteen-year-old Mahmud, a senior at Brooklyn Technical High School. “My group and I created VitaLight, a product that would bring low cost illumination to rural surgeries in Uganda. However, the product we presented at the final pitch event at Columbia University looked nothing like what we first started off with. During our six-week journey to create VitaLight, we went through several prototype designs, all of which failed. However, each failed design gave us new insights, and ultimately allowed us to create our final successful prototype.”

Seventeen-year-old Wang, a member of the Euphoria team, says HYPOTHEkids underscored her love for math and science. “I love anything related to biology. I also like making things. I really want to help other people and I want to make a difference.” Currently a senior at Columbia Secondary School in Harlem, she learned all about the process of engineering through the summer program.

“We can help others with technology,” she adds. “Engineering is really important and I got more interested in engineering than before. I also learned that there must be trials and errors before reaching the final goal.”

The students weren’t the only ones who got a charge from this summer experience. “I am extremely proud of these students, all of whom did great work,” Kyle says. “I hope that this experience will spur them to pursue STEM undergraduate majors and careers. We look forward to next year’s program and also plan for this to be a starting point for enhancing engineering and design training in high schools throughout the city!”

Stay up-to-date with the Columbia Engineering newsletter

* indicates required