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Villanova Students Develop Innovative Solutions at First-Annual Health Hackathon Focused on COVID-19

Students from Engineering, Nursing, Business and Liberal Arts & Sciences competed in the three-day virtual event hosted by Villanova University’s  Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship Institute

square box with the words Villanvova Health Hack and images of a lightbulb, a heart with a pulse through it, and  the medical symbol of two snakes on a staff

Students from across Villanova University came together for the first annual Health Hackathon, a three-day, virtual event hosted earlier this semester by Villanova’s Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship Institute (ICE).

“The goal of the Villanova Health Hackathon was to create opportunities for cross-school collaboration in innovative projects, and to give Villanova Nursing students more experiential learning opportunities outside of their typical clinical work,” said Ann Miller, the Daniel J. Hogarty, Jr. ’61 Director of the Institute for Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship. “We know that the more interdisciplinary the teams are, the more creative and innovative their ideas are.”

Miller added, “While not all Villanova students think of themselves as innovative or entrepreneurial, we know that all Villanova students want to make a difference in the world and we believe that they can use the design thinking frameworks they learn in the hackathon throughout their lives and careers to make great impact.”

Miller created five hackathon themes related to COVID-19 in the workplace, healthcare technology, and vulnerable populations, and then selected the teams and introduced them the night before the hackathon began. Although everyone was separated and off campus, each team worked together at the same time using technology that included Mural, a virtual white board with Post-it Notes. “Though we couldn’t have an in-person event, the students and advisors impressed all of us with how much can be accomplished in just three days,” Miller said. She then gathered a team of judges, academic experts, and staff from across the University to support the students. Participants included students from the Villanova School of Business, the Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences and the College of Engineering. The Independence Blue Cross Center for Innovation in Philadelphia provided additional support for the Health Hackathon.

During the three-day event, students learned design thinking frameworks, conducted design research, and built prototypes. Faculty from the schools and colleges shared expertise and experiences, providing guidance to the participants, who worked as teams in virtual breakout rooms. In addition to Mural, the students used technology such as Groupme, an app that provided a private chat room feature for group work. On the event’s last day, the teams pitched their concepts and answered questions from a virtual audience that included Donna Havens, PhD, RN, FAAN, Connelly Endowed Dean and Professor of the Fitzpatrick College of Nursing, and Michelle Marcolongo, PhD, the Drosdick Endowed Dean of the College of Engineering.

“Nurses are inherently strong problem solvers, collaborators and communicators and there is no more appropriate place for us than in health care innovation. We understand both the nurse and patient user experience and possess knowledge and solutions for complex issues,” said Havens. “Nursing was delighted to partner with ICE, Independence Blue Cross, and campus colleagues to conceive and launch this inaugural Health Hack. It was encouraging to see both undergraduate and graduate nursing students participate, dive into design thinking, and move from ideas to products and programs. The best part is that they want to keep evolving with their innovation skill set.”

Faculty involved in the health hack included Fitzpatrick College of Nursing’s Sunny Hallowell, PhD, PPCNP-BC, IBCLC, Assistant Professor of Nursing, and C. Nataraj, PhD, the Moritz Endowed Professor of Engineered Systems.  

“Undergraduate nursing students rarely consider themselves scientists, researchers, or innovators,” says Hallowell.  “The curriculum is intensely focused on healthcare content and acquisition of clinical skills leaving little to think creatively. Yet, nurses have been healthcare innovators since the early days of the profession. In every setting, from hospitals to public health, nurses are constantly finding creative ways to solve health care delivery and patient care problems with simple, elegant, scalable solutions.”

Hallowell shared with student participants the parallels between the steps of the nursing process (assessment, diagnosis, planning, implementation, and evaluation) used to provide patient care and principles of design thinking (empathize, define, ideate, prototype, test).

Dean Marcolongo, whose areas of expertise include biomaterials and engineered biomedical solutions to treat disease, says “It is important for students to recognize that technological advancements are best achieved with contributions from those with a variety of perspectives. The Health Hackathon provided both undergraduates and graduate students with an opportunity to experience first-hand this successful approach to innovation. The College of Engineering looks forward to many more cross-college collaborations for both students and faculty.”

Dr. Nataraj shared with students his work during the COVID-19 pandemic in developing NovaVent, a low-cost ventilator, as well NovaMed, the Villanova Laboratory for Affordable Medical Technologies, an interdisciplinary lab dedicated to developing open source, affordable, and globally available medical technologies for people in communities where the cost of such resources remains out of reach. “The fact that we can make medical technology cheaper means that patients can get their diagnoses faster, cheaper and easier“ says Nataraj. “Our goal is about equity. There are entire countries in Africa that don’t have a single ventilator. We can make a ventilator that can treat 90% of people for 10% of the cost.”

The winning teams of Villanova’s first-annual Health Hackathon included:

  • The first-place team, Theia Sanitation System, designed a cylindrical sanitation device for healthcare practitioners to use to sanitize their Personal Protective Equipment. The PPE would be placed in the device and ultra violet light would be used to kill any virus particles. The team did research, which showed that hospitals use approximately 30,000 PPE gowns every day and then throw them away after each use. They proved how their invention would offer market protection and save money, but would also produce less trash and help combat the PPE shortages.
  • The second-place team, COVID Clear, created a social media marketing campaign to address COVID education and vaccine distribution for the Latinx community, which has highest death rate in the U.S. One of the reasons for the high death rate is that much of the educational messaging is in English. The team’s campaign included outreach to Latino celebrities to post information in Spanish on social media as a way to remove disinformation that is widely spread.
  • The third-place team, Count Me In, developed a device to monitor the number of individuals within a physical space to assist with social distancing.

Miller noted that the academic experiences of some participants—such as the Villanova Nursing students—provide them the opportunity to see real world problems in action. This allows students to use their experiences to focus in on an area they want to concentrate on.

While students tend to see a world of problems because of their wide and diverse interests, Miller aimed to bring in experts to teach them about concepts that they can apply to a variety of problems.

“I’m always looking for alumni and faculty who can speak with Villanova students in a way that inspires them to do new and innovative and interesting things,” added Miller. "They get inspired and are able to narrow down their own ideas. I was so impressed by the makeup of the teams and how they were able to come up with such innovative projects.”

The Institute for Innovation, Creativity and Entrepreneurship hopes to make this program an annual in-person event with current and relevant themes and topics that inspire more students to participate.