All-woman Nittany AI Challenge team creates solution to reach tech-life balance

March 31, 2021

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Screen time burnout? Many people are feeling it these days because of extended use of technology due to remote learning and remote working situations. But excessive screen time did not start with the COVID-19 pandemic, and one Nittany AI Challenge student team is virtually stepping into the user’s world to suggest a life-tech balance that is as easy as a walk in the park.

The Nittany AI Challenge is facilitated by the Nittany AI Alliance, a service of Penn State Outreach, and tasks student teams with using artificial intelligence for good by finding solutions to address real-world challenges in education, environment, health and humanitarianism.

Elyse Johnson, a junior majoring in wildlife and fisheries science in the College of Agricultural Sciences, describes Reconnect — her team’s solution — as an application that leverages AI, machine learning, and screen time data to interject a counterbalance between users and their phones by suggesting alternative activities to help foster a healthy life-tech balance.

“As a young adult raised in an era of unregulated screen time, I have tried numerous solutions to control my habits and reclaim my attention. I’ve used apps such as Flora, Moment and Apple Screen Time, and noticed what they did well, and where they could learn from their competitors,” Johnson said. “Our app, Reconnect, strikes a balance to provide the awareness, trust, guidance and accountability that my generation and phone users at large need to snap back to reality.”

The Reconnect team is also the first all-woman team to compete in the Nittany AI Challenge. Johnson said that she hopes their team draws more attention to women in STEM-related fields and entices them to compete in future challenges.

“STEM is a male-dominated field, so it’s inevitable more men will show up. But every single woman, person of color, or other minority student willing to take on these competitions helps to break that cycle,” Johnson said. “I am grateful for this story as it is a chance to let Penn State students know that the Nittany AI Challenge is somewhere you are welcome no matter your appearance or ideas.”

The Reconnect app is designed to not only curb phone addiction by monitoring screen-time data, but by also presenting a real-world activity to do as an alternative: go take a walk, bake cookies or learn a new yoga pose. Johnson said the team hopes it will go beyond being an app and be pursued for use in professional conversations about mental health.

“I’ve watched social-media-fueled sleep loss and mental health disorders chip away at myself and my peers. I’ve spent years’ worth of my childhood staring at screens and I regret it,” Johnson said. “Reconnect will not only help young adults reclaim their lives, but it will also revolutionize our relationship with technology for the well-being of future generations.”

Rachel Li, a senior majoring in corporate innovation and entrepreneurship in the Smeal College of Business, said her favorite part of the Nittany AI Challenge is the creative freedom to learn outside of the classroom, although working on their project remotely due to COVID-19 has had its own challenges.

“By working collectively and communicating through Zoom and Teams, we have all come to understand each other’s strengths and learn how to work together despite being partly remote,” Li said. “We are still able to bounce ideas off of each other to create even better ideas, so although it’s not ideal, we’ve done a great job making the most of it.”

Bailey Dismukes, a sophomore majoring in applied data science/security and risk analysis in the College of Information Sciences and Technology, said being an all-woman team helps to create diversity in application design.

“Because of how important technology is today and how it influences all aspects of our lives at this time,” Dismukes said, “it’s important that women are also the ones behind developing new technologies.”

All 20 teams competing in the Nittany AI Challenge will have the opportunity to submit a video demonstration of their prototype on March 31 for the chance to be selected and funded to create a minimum viable product (MVP) during the final phase of the Nittany AI Challenge. The total prize pool for the challenge is $50,000. The top 10 teams selected to create an MVP will be awarded $1,500 each out of that pool.

Click here to learn more about the Nittany AI Challenge.

Follow Reconnect on LinkedIn here and Instagram here to learn more about the team’s progress through the Nittany AI Challenge.

(Media Contacts)

Last Updated April 15, 2021