IST, nursing students address complex medical issues in mHealth Challenge

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — For many people — especially young children — managing debilitating health conditions such as diabetes and celiac disease can be extremely difficult without some type of outside support. Students at Penn State’s College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST), in partnership with students from the College of Nursing and the Department of Biobehavioral Health (BBH) in the College of Health and Human Development (HHD), recently devised technological solutions to help children and their parents navigate complex medical conditions.

The students collaborated in the mHealth Challenge, held Nov. 17 at Penn State’s University Park campus. Part of Global Entrepreneurship Week, the Penn State mHealth Challenge is an engaged scholarship event where undergraduate students from three colleges compete in a cross-college idea pitch contest. The challenge is modeled after a typical consulting scenario where a group of subject matter experts (i.e., BBH and nursing students), work with technology experts (i.e., IST students) to create a prototype that addresses a defined issue for a defined audience. Each team is tasked with identifying a social health need associated with a specific target audience and then developing an app to address that need. Over a two-night period, the teams pitch their proposals to a panel of judges chosen for expertise in health care and business.

The first Penn State mHealth Challenge was held in the fall of 2013. Twenty-one students from the Department of Biobehavioral Health and the College of Information Sciences and Technology pitched their ideas in front of an audience of more than 200 students, faculty and local entrepreneurs. Two years later, the number of students participating has doubled to 42.

According to the challenge's coordinator, Lee Erickson, who is also a lecturer and undergraduate studies entrepreneurship academic program coordinator at the College of IST, this year’s winning teams focused on projects with more of an educational component. A couple of students talked to doctors and medical professionals to get information about interventions, she added, and a few teams addressed issues of a more personal nature — such as a relative of a team member who is struggling with a particular health condition.

The first-place-winning team in this year’s mHealth Challenge, Invinsulin Kids, chose to tackle childhood diabetes for its project. The team consisted of IST students Tyler Straffon and Terry Miles, and nursing students Vanessa Witmer, Emily Werner and Alex Chimahusky.

Invinsulin Kids teaches children ages 5-8 how to manage their diabetes through an interactive approach. Each participant creates a customized avatar that becomes a character in stories based on real-life scenarios, which teach kids how to monitor blood sugar and use insulin pens and pumps. In addition, the kids learn important concepts and techniques through games called Treasure Hunt and Sugar Rush.

“The goal is to provide a fun, interactive tool for kids to learn how to take care of their diabetes,” Straffon said.

The IST and nursing students played complementary roles in the development of the Invinsulin Kids app, Straffon said. The nursing students came up with the concept and provided valuable background information, he said, while the IST students “gamified” the plan.

According to Straffon, the Invinsulin Kids app is unique since other diabetes-related apps on the market focus primarily on carbohydrate counting.

Invinsulin teaches more skills,” he said. “There’s nothing else out there to teach kids [diabetes-related] tasks.”

Celiac disease — an autoimmune disorder that can occur in genetically predisposed people where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine — has drawn an increasing amount of attention in recent years from the medical community and the general public. Gluten Xposed, the third-place winning team in this year’s mHealth Challenge, developed an app that helps newly diagnosed children tackle celiac disease head-on. Designed for kids ages 7 to 9, the app provides an interactive guide to help children and their parents make informed choices regarding their diets and self-care. The app consists of videos and information that can be accessed by pushing buttons.

The team was composed of IST students Anand Bhagat and Jose Ponte, and nursing students Alexandra Diantonio, Gabrielle MacCariello and Caitlin Wetzler. Ponte said the team members were able to effectively connect their knowledge of different areas to bring their concept to fruition.

“I think our biggest contribution was getting the people and technology together,” he said.

Last Updated December 17, 2015