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Johns Hopkins University and MICA Students Create Innovative Life Hacks

When first-year students from Johns Hopkins University’s Department of Mechanical Engineering teamed up with students from the Maryland Institute College of Art (MICA) on a semester-long design project, called the “Hack Your Life Design Challenge,“ it seemed clear how things would go.

“We'd bring the paint, and they'd bring the gears,“ said Emma Talpey, a first-year MICA student.

The 18 co-institutional teams, made up of two MICA students and two or three Hopkins students, were tasked with creating new innovative and interactive “life hacks“ based on their shared experiences that could enhance their lives.

“We found that one big thing we all had in common was that we all valued sleep and don't like getting up for early classes,“ said Talpey, who teamed up with fellow MICA student Yoon Jung Cho and Johns Hopkins students Annika Torp, Mark Shifman, and Edgar Camarillo.

This led to the “Rise N’ Shine Machine,“ a multifaceted assembly that wakes its user with the push of a button, which turns on lights, raises curtains, and plays the user's favorite music to make “waking up“ more efficient and enjoyable. At the exhibition, which was on display at MICA from the middle of April to the beginning of May, visitors could walk into a fully furnished bedroom and try the machine themselves.

The teams had a few basic requirements: they had to use at least five different materials, the project had to be interactive, it had to have moving parts, and each team had a budget cap of $100. Otherwise, students had the freedom to explore different ways in which engineering and art can intersect.

“Teamwork and interdisciplinary collaboration are so important to success in any field, and this assignment really demonstrated that,“ said Steven Marra, Johns Hopkins associate teaching professor of mechanical engineering, who taught the collaborative course along with Laure Drogoul, Edon Muhaxheri, and Jenna Frye—all MICA professors.

“We had to figure out the best way to explain things to each other,“ said Alexander LeFevre, a first-year Hopkins mechanical engineering student. LeFevre worked with classmate Lukas Sznewajs and MICA students Yeji Kim and Julianna Yu to create “The Remedial Ripple,“ a motorized art installation of gold blocks that reads “Peace begins with a smile.“ When turned on, the gold blocks reach their respective peaks at different times, creating the illusion of a wave or ripple.

Other projects included a “smart“ umbrella, a new take on the traditional backpack, a hugging machine, the "ultimate study space," a device that “eats“ smartphones and provides conversation topics in return, a swing set that lights up when the users swing in sync, and a “sensitive monster“ that approaches when spoken to gently but scurries away if things get too loud.

Members of another team realized they all experienced homesickness and wanted to channel that feeling into something useful. MICA students Abbey Franklin and Spencer He, and Johns Hopkins students Theophile Garnier and Michaela O’Donnell, created a pair of mechanical flowers with petals that are programmed to open and close simultaneously, based on the user's emotional state. For example, a user can close the petals if they are having a bad day, allowing friends or family in distant locations to see how they are feeling.

According to O’Donnell, the project helped her understand that engineering and art often need to overlap.

“You can build a product that works great, but people aren't going to buy it if it doesn't look good, too,“ she said.