Duke Blueprint Pioneers the Ideathon

July 9, 2018

Event brings energy and fast pace of hackathons to students of all academic backgrounds to generate blueprints for solutions to the world's most pressing issues

From the 2018 DukEngineer Magazine

student at whiteboard

One of the event volunteers and DCT President and Founder Sam Kelly (ME’18) looks over the work of a student team while they take a break to attend a workshop on design thinking

On February 2-3, the Pratt student group Duke Conservation Tech (DCT) held the second Duke Blueprint Ideathon. As an "ideathon," Blueprint brings the energy and extremely fast pace of hackathons to students of all academic backgrounds, especially those who are intimidated by the technology focus of other events, to generate blueprints for solutions to the world's most pressing issues. Blueprint pioneered this concept with the first Blueprint conference in January 2017 attracting just over 100 attendees.

pink penguin with conference tagNow, in its second year, the event was attended by 273 people from around the country for a weekend of passionate problem solving and rapid prototyping around some of the planet's most pressing issues. This included experts in engineering, conservation, biology and medicine. Blueprint's mission is to bring together people of varied backgrounds to address problems in a new way. As senior Joshua Furth, ME'18, lead organizer of the ideathons in both 2017 and 2018, describes it, "Putting diverse perspectives in such proximity drives valuable insights, ideas and awareness. We believe this context leads to the most effective win-win solutions."

Blueprint 2018 was themed "Nature + Progress" and focused on reconciling the natural world with the inevitability of human progress. DCT brought 36 expert mentors and speakers from organizations such as National Geographic, World Wildlife Fund, Duke Cancer Institute and dozens more to work with and mentor the 21 student teams that participated in the weekend.

During the event, Alex Dehgan, CEO of ConservationXLabs and The Chanler Innovator in Residence at Duke, described his experience at Blueprint by saying, "My experience here has been amazing, the amount of energy, the amount of creativity, the ideas people have had here at Blueprint are incredible. And they make me, in one word, optimistic about the future of our ability to solve the wicked challenges of conservation."

While the experience of Blueprint was fulfilling for the mentors, their presence was also a unique opportunity for students. As one participant, Gaurav Uppal, pointed out, "Blueprint allowed us to interact with faculty and experts with whom we would not have the chance to connect in any other way."whiteboard writing behind window

Blueprint 2018 was supported by a total of 32 academic, corporate and non-profit institutions. This widespread support included Duke's Pratt School of Engineering and Nicholas School of the Environment, the World Wildlife Federation, and Delta Air Lines, which served as the official airline of Blueprint, donating flights for the mentors. A full list of Blueprint's 2018 sponsors can be found at dukeblueprint.com.

Duke Conservation Tech was founded by mechanical engineering students Sam Kelly and Connor Guest in 2015. Since then the group has expanded to take on numerous projects including low-cost, open-source animal tracking technologies, drones to counter poaching and fishing nets that prevent sea turtle bycatch. The Blueprint events have helped DCT to expand awareness of their work, recruit numerous new members and develop ideas for ongoing projects.

"ScareHive," a project initially conceived by a team at the first Blueprint conference in 2017, has continued on to active prototyping with DCT's support. The project, a low-cost, gravity-powered device to protect rural crops from elephant stampedes by replicating the sound of swarming bees, was even fielded in South Africa last summer with the support and guidance of one of Blueprint's sponsors, the US Army Research Office.

Similarly, the winning team from the 2018 conference, "Algenie," has already begun working with ConservationXLabs, another Blueprint partner, to further refine and prototype their concept. Algenie's concept involves modular algae and a bivalve farm that encourages biodiversity and captures greenhouse gases, allowing commercial algae to be grown in three dimensions, rather than just across the surface of the water. Their goal is to design a farm that allows for quick and efficient production of algae and seaweed. This will simultaneously serve as feed for cows to reduce methane production and as a basis for superfoods.

garbage trap modelJosh Furth summed up the weekend by saying, "I am extremely proud of the successes of this year's Duke Blueprint conference! It was a pleasure to host a group of such energetic and creative problem solvers. The atmosphere at the event was electrifying and contagious. We cannot thank all who participated and supported the event enough, and we hope everyone left with a sense of pride in the incredible blueprints they created!"

While Josh will be graduating in May, plans for Blueprint 2019 are already underway with dates to be announced shortly. Next year, Blueprint will not only take place at Duke. Under the leadership and guidance of the Duke team, Blueprint's model for creative problem solving and a high-energy, fast-paced event will make its way to a number of other universities across the United States working on planning their own Blueprint events.

Readers can learn more about DCT's ongoing work at their website: dukeconservationtech.com, and videos of this year's Blueprint event as well as information about future events at Duke and elsewhere can be found at dukeblueprint.com.

Joshua Furth is a senior graduating this spring with a degree in mechanical engineering

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