Imagine winning $1.75 million for a school science project. That was the goal for Ryerson students at last week’s Fresh Water Challenge and Design Thinking Hackathon.

The hackathon is inspired by the Water Abundance challenge set by XPRIZE, a California-based non-profit organization that designs public competitions tackling real-world issues through the creation of innovative technology.

To win, teams must create a device that can harvest freshwater from the air to tackle the global water crisis. The device must be able to extract 2,000 litres of fresh water per day from the atmosphere using entirely renewable energy and costing less than two cents per litre.

Bryan Koivisto prepares marketing material for the hackathon in his office at the SDZ. (Bradly Shankar/Ryersonian Staff)

The Ryerson event will determine a winning team that will receive up to $1,000 in funding by the university to register in the XPRIZE competition, where the $1.75-million prize will be awarded. It began last week and the winner will be chosen on March 31.

The hackathon is hosted by the Science Discovery Zone (SDZ), in collaboration with the department of chemistry and biology, as well as Ryerson Urban Water – a collective of 44 professors focusing on research, education and policy related to freshwater.

Nearly 30 students across various business and science programs are participating in the hackathon, with registration still open to new applicants.

“That would be a great summer project, where you took your idea and got enough funding to support you and the development of your idea,” says Bryan Koivisto, director of the SDZ and associate professor in chemistry and biology.

“To me, that’s what SDZ learning is all about [and] we’ll do our best to accommodate it.”

Trevor McConnell graduated from business management with a major in entrepreneurship last year, but remained at Ryerson as project co-ordinator at the SDZ. He’s overseeing the hackathon and says it is a great way for teams to see if their projects are scientifically feasible and commercially viable. So far, McConnell says he’s happy with the results he’s seen.

“It was surprising,” he says. “We thought they’d all be very conceptual but there are some methods that are quite easy to replicate.”

For example, he mentions how students have been looking at ways to find water in desert areas.

“If you just dig a hole in the sand and you put a cup and a piece of Saran Wrap and a stone right in the middle,” McConnell says, “the wet sand, the moisture from the earth, will collect on the Saran Wrap and funnel to the centre from the stone and it’ll collect in the cup.”

The competition aims to help all teams achieve their full potential through the creation of technology.

“You ultimately get a winner, but you also get a whole bunch of innovative technology that doesn’t win, but is still good, valuable technology,” says Nick Reid, executive director of Ryerson Urban Water. “Sometimes those are winners as well, just not of that particular prize, so it’s a good way to stimulate innovation.”

Ultimately, it’s about creating opportunities for others, Koivisto says. He cites McConnell as a prime example of this – someone who graduated from a business-related program but was able to return and get involved in scientific initiatives, such as the hackathon.

Vanessa Bairos writes on sticky notes in the SDZ ahead of the hackathon. (Bradly Shankar/Ryersonian Staff)

Vanessa Bairos, who recently earned her bachelor’s degree in chemistry and is in the process of applying for a master’s, says she got involved with the hackathon, in part, because it let her work with students from different programs.

“A lot of business students want to interact with the science-related fields and me, personally, I’m really interested in business, so it’s nice to collaborate with everyone and get both views,” she says.

The hackathon allowed her to get a completely different experience out of her time at the university. “This is like nothing I’ve ever done before at Ryerson,” she says. “It’s nice to dive into a new environment and a new way of learning and gathering information.”

The hackathon is only the beginning, Reid says. Urban Water is planning to hold other events at Ryerson to offer even more opportunities to students and faculty.

“We’re looking to connect with different departments across Ryerson and other universities as well,” he says. “It all helps consolidate Ryerson’s role as an innovative hub and connector of like-minded people to come up with solutions.”

In the first two days of the competition last week, the teams came up with their ideas. Presentations to the judges will be given on March 31 and the winning team will be determined by the end of the day.


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