covid-19 innovation challenge

COVID Innovation Challenge Solicited Students’ Ideas for Safe Return to Campus

Student teams recognized for phone app, protective face covering, device for disinfecting workspace tables
October 15, 2020

When WPI put out the challenge to come up with ways to safely return to campus while maintaining the university’s high-quality college experience, students responded in true WPI fashion: collaborating and brainstorming their way to some innovative solutions.

Three teams of students were recognized for their solutions earlier in the summer at the conclusion of the COVID Innovation Challenge, a virtual event in which more than 80 students comprising 30 teams presented their ideas and innovations to a panel of 54 judges. The top team of sophomores Emily Coughlin and Lucas Kamal was awarded $1,000 in Goatbucks for their phone app, Combating COVID-19:  Disney, Detours, and De-Densification, designed to let students see how crowded various study spaces are across campus so users can see what spaces are available and observe social distancing.

A tie for second ($750 in Goatbucks to each team) went to seniors Aadhya Puttur and Andrew Adiletta for Spectrum: The Next Generation COVID-19 Protective Face Mask and to juniors Sydney Borrello, Manjusha Chava, Nathan Ng, and Tyler Vu for WYPER 1500 by Cleanovation: Automatic Sanitation System to Disinfect Workspace Tables.

Curtis Abel appointed to lead Innovation and Entrepreneurship



Curtis Abel, director, Innovation & Entrepreneurship Integration, says the challenge was put out to students over the summer to develop innovative solutions to reduce the spread of COVID-19, to maintain and improve the high-quality college experience, and to foster community, connection, and well-being.

Abel was recently appointed Executive Director of Innovation and Entrepreneurship. He will report to Provost Wole Soboyejo, and will be a member of his Academic Leadership team. His primary responsibility will be embedding innovation and entrepreneurial programming into the core of WPI, with a focus on creating a vibrant community of impact makers who will make the world a better place. In this role he will oversee the WPI Tinkerbox, Innovation Challenges, Mentors-in-Residence Program, and the Tech Advisors Network, among other programs. He succeeds Donna Levin, WPI’s inaugural executive director of innovation and entrepreneurship.

“My job is to integrate innovation and entrepreneurship into the fabric of WPI,” Abel says. “We want to bring the entire campus together to collaborate in this type of initiative—to solve problems that matter—that will make a difference in people’s lives. What better time to do this than showing how challenging times can push us to creative solutions?”

Winning phone app inspired by Disney theme parks

Coughlin explained that the app she and Kamal developed was inspired in part by the way Disney tracks visitors at its theme parks.

“Disney does crowd tracking,” she said during a virtual celebration of participants last month. “The goal is to keep study areas open while keeping density low.”

Kamal said the app might also be used post-COVID in larger universities as a dedicated GPS to plan out the best routes to get places. “I would advise making the user interfaces easier,” he said. “But, if you’re looking for a place to study, this could be a positive impact to your quality of life.”

Creating a sense of empathy


The three-day challenge opened with workshops aimed at creating a sense of empathy with stakeholders, and safety and trust among participants. “The idea is to show your partners you care about them,” Abel says. “Make them look good. This got them more engaged.”

Professor Leslie Dodson, co-director of the Global Lab, followed with a workshop aimed at creating a sense of empathy with stakeholders. Professor Rob Sarnie in the Foisie Business School, director of the Wall Street Project Center, facilitated a workshop on the financial impact of solutions—getting to know customers to develop a model that creates sustainable economic, social, and environmental value.

Professor Glenn Gaudette, director of WPI’s Value Creation Initiative, and Len Polizzotto ’70, founder of business consulting company CIRA Associates LLC, led a value creation workshop to introduce the students to a framework for creating a value proposition for solving a pressing problem, building on the previous workshops, and connecting the dots for the students.

“This helps in thinking of how to develop a value proposition,” Abel says, “to look at a problem as an opportunity rather than just a problem. What are the benefits, who is the competition? This is more about an approach to thinking, rather than just solving problems.

“You should be doing this with every decision you make in life. How are you going to add value with everything you do?”


Abel says one-third of the teams want to further their projects, and that he will follow up with them. In the meantime, plans are being made for a new challenge to be held before the start of C-Term.

“Watching the students engage with this challenge was truly rewarding,” Abel says in summing up the August program. “It was magical to witness how inspired the students were to improve the college experience even beyond pre-Covid status. We have wicked smart, caring students at WPI. The energy was awesome.”