Learning to innovate, collaborate under pressure

The College of Applied Health Sciences’ physical therapy department took a page out of the tech industry’s video game development playbook when it launched a unique event meant to foster a sense of innovation and collaboration between two groups of students that would otherwise seldom interact.

The inaugural Health Tech Jam brought together nearly 40 students from the physical therapy and biomedical visualization programs and issued a challenge: develop a technological solution to a common health care problem — and do it in just six hours.

In a traditional industry “jam,” video game and mobile app developers come together with a host of interested parties — some are directly involved in game development and some are just passionate about video games — to “make something new, start to finish, in a 24- to 48-hour continuous block of time,” said Samantha Bond, visiting clinical assistant professor of physical therapy and biomedical and health information sciences.

“There is something about that magical mix of a fast-paced environment and the convergence of different backgrounds that creates amazing work,” Bond said, “and that is the energy we wanted to harness in our own jam.”

The Health Tech Jam took place over two days, three hours each day on March 6 and 7. Students first went through an ice-breaking activity meant to create a sense of team spirit between the two unacquainted groups.

“Even though BVIS and PT students have a lot in common, like the fact that they want to help people, they have very different skills and very few opportunities to interact,” Bond said. “To break the ice, we put a unique spin on a good old-fashioned rock-paper-scissors tournament.”

For each match, if a student lost, he or she was recruited to a cheering section for the winner. “By the last match, the whole group was involved by cheering for one of the two final players — the energy shot through the roof,” Bond said.

The students were then divided into eight teams and presented with a series of prompts about common health-related issues, such as healthy eating and avoiding falls. Following a brainstorm of potential tech-related solutions and consultation with participating faculty members, each team selected one idea to develop into a “Shark Tank”-style pitch they would present in competition for theoretical funding.

First-year physical therapy student Katie Kanturek’s group proposed a product call Utrition, a mobile app that provides a health score and associated warnings for foods when a user scans the foods’ barcodes, ideally in a grocery store or while making a shopping list. The idea, Kanturek said, is to help people who need support understanding how to choose healthy foods.

“I came into school thinking I would just be treating patients,” Kanturek said. “When I thought about tech in physical therapy, I thought about prosthetics and exercise equipment — it was rarely about social media, apps or websites.

“Now, knowing that I can be someone who is an asset to creating new health tech products is really exciting to me,” she said, “because maybe I can help more people understand more about health than just the ones I will treat on a daily basis.”

Angela Gao, a second-year student in the biomedical visualization program, said working with the physical therapy students was very helpful.

“Without the perspective of the PT students, we wouldn’t have been able to design a tool with the practitioner in mind, as well as with a patient,” Gao said.

Gao’s team won the final pitch with their product Exerguide, a mobile app that teaches people about at-home exercises with normal household items, such as a chair or a water bottle.

“It’s designed for people who don’t have access to a gym, have gym fear, don’t know how to start exercising, or have other reasons why they need to stay at home,” Gao said.

As winners, Gao and her team members will have the opportunity to actually develop their product with faculty support.

“The energy and positivity of the Health Tech Jam was really encouraging,” Gao said, “and I learned that collaboration with people from diverse backgrounds gives birth to better ideas.”

Bond said the goal of the Health Tech Jam is not about preparing students for one specific situation. “It’s about preparing students to innovate in any situation, to work with people of different backgrounds and to solve problems,” she said.

In the future, Bond hopes the Health Tech Jam will grow to include other departments and colleges across campus.