Ithaca High School Team Wins Inaugural Make-a-Thon, Besting Teams from Cornell

Post date: Feb 24, 2016 4:55:21 PM

On February 20 and 21, a team of students from Ithaca High School (IHS) beat ten teams from Cornell and other universities, taking first place in the inaugural Make-a-thon, a 24-hour competition for design of tech gadgets on the theme of “Smart Living."

The event was organized by Life Changing Labs, a nonprofit organization that provides experience and mentorship for Cornell’s top entrepreneurially minded students.

The IHS team, made up of Tristan Engst, Woocheol Hyun, Jeong Hyun Lee, Freya Ryd, Jacob Silcoff, and Ruth Silcoff, earned the win via blind judging for their P!LLPAL system, a bracelet that stores medication and notifies the wearer when it’s time to take it by vibrating and dispensing the pill. If brought to fruition, P!LLPAL could improve health for anyone who has trouble remembering to take important medications, perhaps even saving lives.

The IHS group beat out ten teams made up of college students from Cornell and elsewhere, and also one other high school team. The other high school team finished second.

Originally, the Make-a-thon was to have separate tracks for teams at high school and college levels. But upon learning that enrollment was low among high school teams, Ruth Silcoff contacted organizers and suggested merging the tracks. “Being very confident in our invention, I thought that we had a good chance of beating the college teams,” she says. “If we lost, it wouldn't be too upsetting, but if we won it would be even more exciting. So I figured, why not compete against Cornell teams?”

The IHS students, like all the other teams, had only 24 hours to compose design drawings, build a prototype, and develop documentation and a pitch, including a logo. They even had to learn a programming language called Arduino, which was previously completely unfamiliar to them.

“Our biggest challenge in making the P!LLPAL prototype was how to model it successfully while still making it realistically buildable in 24 hours with very limited materials,” says Ryd. She adds, “The design concept of P!LLPAL was really its biggest strength. It needed a market, and it needed to be realistic, and we managed both.”

After a mostly sleepless night, fueled by adrenaline and many cups of coffee and at least one mind-clearing run around the building at 2 AM, they pitched their product to judges. The stunning result came shortly thereafter.

“Winning was incredible,” recalls Jacob Silcoff. “It validated years of participation in computer science classes, the Technology Student Associations at DeWitt Middle School and IHS, and even debate club.”

The vanquished college teams were gracious to the young winners. “The other teams were really cool about it,” says Jacob Silcoff. “And throughout the night, they lent us tools and advice, and the feedback we received was overwhelmingly positive.”

For winning, each member of the the IHS team received a $500 scholarship to a summer camp that Life Changing Labs is offering next summer. The team was also allowed to keep its prototype, including the Arduino software used to program it.

But, says Engst, the biggest prize was just the fun of participating. “We all got to mess around with technology and prototype something cool. There was also lots of free food, an excuse to stay up way too late, and enough coffee to make that work well.”

Fans can help the IHS team win the competition's People’s Choice Award as well, by going to the Life Changing Labs Facebook page, clicking the Like button in the banner graphic at the top, then clicking to view comments on the first post, then scrolling down to the P!LLPAL entry, and finally clicking Like on that comment too.

Congratulations to these students, and big thanks to the Technology Student Association mentors who have helped a number of the team members down this path during their years at DeWitt and IHS!