MakeHarvard 2018: The Super Bowl of Makeathons


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The inaugural MakeHarvard event was everything one would expect from the title, and more.

A true “best of the best” maker event, MakeHarvard attracted the interest of over 700 of the nation’s top graduate and undergraduate students. The chosen 200 left campuses from all over the United States and descended on Cambridge, Massachusetts for the Super Bowl of makeathons.

Sunstone Circuits’ Nolan Johnson and Dustin Jablonski served as both mentors and competition judges. Sunstone sponsored a prize for the best feats of reverse engineering and documentation, a process near and dear to their PCB-centric hearts.

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“We often get too restricted in our thinking; we put up boundaries around our thought processes that we do not test,” said Johnson. “When engineers embrace their creative selves and nurture their creative processes as much as their engineering disciplines, they thrive more.”

MakeHarvard provided every tool necessary to remove barriers, catalyze creativity, and foster innovation. With just 36 hours to form teams, then dream up and build a functioning prototype, sleep was not on the menu for participants, many of whom relied on bedrolls and travel kits rather than a hotel room with running water.

Entries were recognized in a variety of categories including Best Overall, Fan Favorite, Most Likely to Become a Unicorn, and Sunstone’s Best Reverse Engineering. Judging was based on creativity, depth, technical difficulty, usability, scalability, and value to society. The judges also made themselves available for moral support and idea exchange as soon as the doors opened.

Jablonski quickly established himself as a go-to resource. “I’ve been making things for a long time, and the community that has grown up around making in all its forms is truly awe inspiring to me,” said Jablonski.

The maker movement, essentially a tech-influenced do-it-yourself community, was informally created around 15 years ago with MAKE Magazine, the paper of record for the dispersed community. Maker spaces and events have increasingly proliferated, inspiring startups and manufacturing innovation as well as clogging garages the world over with prototypes.

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“The Maker commitment to repurposing represents a legitimate engineering philosophy that we enthusiastically support at Sunstone. We had been looking for a way to participate in a makeathon type event,” said Johnson. “MakeHarvard seemed like a great fit for us.”

The MakeHarvard organizers felt the same way. Jess Hann, a team lead for the event, said, “Our applicants were very clear that they favored engineering-related sponsors, actual makers. Sunstone offered our participants exactly what they were looking for.”

Sunstone’s reverse engineering competition was one of the most hotly contested. Once Johnson and Jablonski established the ground rules, explained running documentation, and laid out the judging rubric, it was off to the races.

“We made a competition primarily about adherence to good engineering practices. We wanted to see that you could not only blaze a trail, but you could make it so others could follow,” said Johnson.

The reverse engineering winners sought to mitigate the dangers of downtown Boston cycling with a smarter bike light that could improve rider safety. The plan was to repurpose an existing bike light by adding an IMU that would integrate accelerometer, gyroscope, and, potentially, magnetometer data. Designed to keep the rider’s hands safely on the handle bars, the smarter light would be able to determine when the bike was slowing down (brake light) or changing direction (turn signal).

“They proved their concept, then built their device, complete with op-amp comparator printed circuit,” said Johnson. “And their documentation was phenomenal.”

Event organizers and participants alike took notice of Jablonski and Johnson’s enthusiasm. “As soon as we made contact, it was clear to us that Sunstone was all in,” said Hann.

Perhaps more important than staying on top of logistics or delivering the judging rubric on time, Jablonski took it upon himself to do something special for the category winners. “We built what I like to think was a pretty cool trophy to give the winners,” said Jablonski. “It seemed like it would be more fun, meaningful, and lasting than a cash prize.”

At MakeHarvard’s conclusion, organizers, sponsors, and participants alike agreed that the 36-hour hackathon had been a blast. “Since this was the inaugural MakeHarvard, we didn’t really know what to expect,” said Hann. “I thought it might turn out to be too much about the competitive aspects, but MakeHarvard ended up being more about learning and exploring.”

Team Sunstone agreed. When asked to reflect on the experience, Johnson echoed Hann. “At the core of every successful team at MakeHarvard was a happy accident, the noting of something unexpected, outside the normal boundaries, that could be capitalized upon to create something new and move the world forward.”

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