Giving children superpowers

Third place winners demonstrating their foot brace for ankle joint physiotherapy

Collaborative teams of NUS students banded together in the latest edition of Makerthon to put their creativity, teamwork and innovation to the test. Themed “Give superpowers to children in need”, this competition, initiated by the NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost’s Office and organised by NUS Computing, NUS Design and Environment and NUS Engineering, saw 14 teams of undergraduates from multiple disciplines work on ingenious projects to help children suffering from physical and mental diseases such as cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy and down syndrome.

“The previous competition focused on the elderly and we wanted to continue with the theme of social impact and doing good,” explained NUS Computing Senior Lecturer Dr Soo Yuen Jien, one of the event’s organising committee members. “This Makerthon is about giving children superpowers, but we hope the students can also realise that they have the superpowers to build something that can benefit the society at large.”

The students were given about four weeks to conceptualise their ideas, forming teams and beginning their work in early December. To ensure that the students understood the issues and the needs of the targeted children, they were given opportunities to consult with professionals in the medical field, including the NUS Yong Loo Lin School of Medicine Department of Paediatrics Associate Professor Stacey Tay, one of the competition judges. The finale, held on 7 January, saw NUS Engineering Year 4 students Amos Heng and Chong Ze Xuan, NUS Design and Environment Year 4 student Claire Teo and NUS Pharmacy Year 5 student Luah Xiao Wen win first place with their wearable device, named Gestice League that helps cerebral palsy patients perform tasks with a user-determined gesture.


First place winners with their wearable device that allows cerebral palsy patients to complete various tasks using gestures as triggers

Through interviews with two young children with cerebral palsy, the team carefully developed their device in a way that would suit the children’s needs. “We learnt that every child has a range of mobility and different goals,” explained Amos, adding that existing solutions on the market are very specialised, requiring users to perform a very specific gesture that might not be within their capabilities.

“We wanted to create a versatile device that is able to target and serve multiple needs…where the product learns the user, not the user learns the product,” he said. Their device works through three stages — ‘training’ where the patient chooses a suitable action and repeats it to allow the machine-learning model to recognise it, ‘trigger’ which determines the point where the patient’s action is adequately identified in order to be translated into an output, and ‘task’ where the patient is able to use this ‘trained’ gesture to perform a task of their choice. The team also carefully designed these wearable devices to depict logos of superheroes. “Even though we cannot give the little children the power of strength, we can give them the power of hope,” Amos quipped.

This Makerthon is about giving children superpowers, but we hope the students can also realise that they have the superpowers to build something that can benefit the society at large.

The judges were impressed by the clear focus and vision of the winning team, said Director of the Design Incubation Centre and NUS Design and Environment Associate Professor Patrick Chia.

“They interviewed two children, studied their behaviour and designed something that is according to their desire and their struggles. It was very human-centric with a specific focus. One of the requirements in this competition is that the students design something for someone and make an impact… it should be driven by how to make a difference in a child’s daily life. I think they have achieved that,” he added.


Second place winners with their sleep positioning system for patients with severe cerebral palsy

The second place winners developed Wave, an automated sleep positioning system to improve sleep quality for severe cerebral palsy patients.

Three projects came in at third place — Smile to Speech, an app that allows cerebral palsy patients to form sentences by activating it with a smile, Baby Steps, a foot brace to aid with ankle joint physiotherapy of cerebral palsy patients, and DITO, a multiplayer video game to help down syndrome patients develop emotional intelligence and connect with others through play. The winning teams took home cash prizes ranging from $1,000 to $5,000, with the additional possibility of seed funding to continue working on their projects.

All the projects were showcased at a public exhibition in University Town on 7 January.