IoT Hackathon Challenges Students to Think Differently

The Internet of Things (IoT) is changing the nature of engineering and technology, but the growth of jobs in this new area is outpacing the ability of universities to turn out students with the proper skills and training.

“With engineering, you end up learning a lot of core stuff in college, but you’re looking at a book that’s been the same copy since 1958,” says Jake MacDonald, a senior at UMass Amherst. “They stick to the basics and then go, ‘well, at internships and jobs you’ll learn everything else.’”

With this approach, students often lack the hands-on training required to be successful in their jobs, and navigate today’s world of connected products.

This is why hackathons have become one of the biggest things to happen to education since the rise of the Internet, allowing students to not only take what they’ve learned in school and apply it to the real world, but also master new skills they may not necessarily pick up in a classroom.

This winter break, six undergraduates from the Boston area took part in just such an event held at Boston-based tech company PTC.

“I had a manufacturing internship over the summer, and kind of realized that I don’t like manufacturing that much, so I wanted to get another view on engineering” MacDonald says. “I figured this would let me try some programming and computer stuff that I don’t normally do.”

MacDonald and the five other students with backgrounds in IT, computer science, and electrical and mechanical engineering, came together to develop two IoT related apps—one connecting cell phone sensors to a ThingWorx Mashup, and the other turning an EV3 controller—used by FIRST teams—into a connected device.

MacDonald and Cheli with the FTC robot.

“As we worked, we found that the apps by themselves were great, but a system of applications is better,” says Mark Cheli, a Framingham State senior and hack-a-thon project lead. “We decided to demo multiple apps in a system, bringing them together to really utilize the power we get from this connectivity.”

In order to achieve this, the teams created a FIRST-like game to connect the functions of each application. One app connected multiple cell phones to ThingWorx allowing a user to stream data from their phones. A second app collected data from an EV3 controller connected to sensors on a FIRST Lego League (FLL) robot.

MacDonald navigates a FTC robot using an augmented reality map.

Using this kind of connected technology, the students found they could add an augmented reality element to the FIRST competitions.

As the students delved deeper into creating this ‘game,’ they realized that what they were doing could be put in the context of a real-world scenario.

“It kind of simulates an autonomous farm,” MacDonald says. “The mapper is like a UAV flying above the farm. A farmer won’t really know which sections are fully grown yet, so the UAV flies around, collects data, and the farmer can say, ‘Oh, these are these crops, they’re grown this much, etc.,’ and that data is sent to somebody in a tractor who can go and collect the right crops.”

Making the connection to a real-world application is one of the reasons why IoT hackathons for college students are incredibly important.

For MacDonald, who graduates this May, the hack-a-thon has not only opened his eyes to the IoT , but also how it will impact his future.

MacDonald and another student program the FTC robot.

“I’m pretty interested in electromechanical systems, but this takes it a step further; to having an electromechanical system that is hooked up to the Internet. It broadens what I need to think about,” MacDonald says.

MacDonald believes that colleges should teach students about the IoT and everything he learned at the hackathon so that he and others can be fully prepared for the challenges and opportunities the IoT brings.

“I think, especially for engineering and computer science, there’s little to no cooperation between the different schools,” he says. “Mechanical engineers just do mechanical engineering things, and electrical and CS all kind of stay to themselves. But with [IoT] becoming a bigger thing, you have a reason to integrate them all together.”

Photos by Matt Butler