Hackathon helps incoming freshmen apply ECE skills for a great cause

// Electrical & Computer Engineering

Photo of students working at Solympics event

A team of ECE freshmen work on a portable solar charger in the Solympics hackathon.

In 2019, incoming electrical and computer engineering students enrolled in summer-term early-start Introductory Experiences in Electrical Engineering (ECE 210) course learned, in part, how to address real-world engineering challenges by shadowing participants in the International Future Energy Challenge E-Bike Competition.

And so when he was planning the in-person portion of the four-week class in summer 2021, Electrical and Computer Engineering Professor Giri Venkataramanan decided to have his students shadow teams participating in the Solympics hackathon, an event held July 22-24, 2021, at the college’s makerspace. The event focused on simple solar-powered solutions for charging devices such as phones or tablets.

But the students had other ideas about that. “When they heard about the objectives and format, they were excited,” says Venkataramanan. “The students enthusiastically wanted to compete, and either joined others or organized themselves into teams.”

Students work on project at Solympics hackathon
Students from one freshman team work on a van-top solar charger that’s detachable and portable.

The competition challenges teams to develop mobile solar-powered charging kiosks, which will benefit students of the Great Lakes Community Conservation Corps in Racine, Wisconsin. In addition to work that advances greener living, the organization offers emergency response training and services that help veterans transition to civilian life.

One ECE 210 student team developed a charging solution small enough to carry around like a backpack and use anywhere. “We kind of modeled it as a cross between a briefcase and a folding table,” says team member Meera Bradley. “The solar panel is inside of the briefcase. We have folding legs on it, so you can open it up, fold it out and plug your phone into the side.”

Another team developed a different kind of mobile solution—one in which a solar panel attached to the roof of a vehicle could charge a battery located inside the vehicle in a briefcase. “The carrying case is detachable, so you can take it away from the van and still have power,” says team member Nathan Woolf.

Students from the Great Lakes CCC also were on hand to advise the UW-Madison teams, says ECE PhD student Maitreyee Sanjiv Marathe, who helped organize and run the hackathon. “Many hackathons have the customer being out there somewhere else,” she says. “But we have our customer right here, collaborating with the participants of the hackathon, and I think that’s what makes this quite unique. Being closer to their customer makes the students very context-aware: Students are made aware of the nuances of using the solutions in the field—rather than being stuck in equations and drawing the circuit diagrams.”

Beyond the Solympics, the ECE 210 student participants say that even though the summer class is only four weeks long, they have a head start on meeting each other, experiencing the power of working in teams, building their engineering knowledge, and learning practical skills. “We’ve learned a lot of things: circuits, drawing diagrams, how to put solar panels together,” says team member Sam Leong.

Venkataramanan says the students’ participation in the Solympics isn’t just an opportunity to learn engineering by doing it, but it also allows them to envision how they as engineers can make a difference in the world. “I see this as a great beginning for them to work on a real-world project on the top of their authentic curricular learning experience—coming up with a solution for addressing climate change through resilience, squarely focused on a socially relevant and important community, supported by the Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation,” he says. “What better way to learn about the Wisconsin Idea?”

At the end of the Solympics, judges evaluated each entry. The gold level prize went to the Little Electric Free Library; Team Icarus’s picnic-table charging station took silver, the bronze went to a solar-charger shoulder bag; best prototype went to the bust stop charging on the go station; while the van-top solar charger earned the best pitch award.

Solympics sponsors include the makerspace, the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering, the Wisconsin Electric Machines and Power Electronics Consortium at UW-Madison, the Great Lakes CCC, the Wisconsin Office of Energy Innovation, and in-kind support from partner Milwaukee Tool.

Author: Renee Meiller