TOM: Vanderbilt, Students Helping Those with Disabilities


Computer Science and Engineering

Kyle Weil

This past weekend, January 19th to the 21st, Vanderbilt hosted its first annual TOM makeathon on the second floor of the Wondry. TOM Global is a non-profit based in Tel Aviv that hosts 72-hour makeathons across the globe.

The TOM makeathon is an event where teams of engineers (known as makers) are paired with people with disabilities (known as need knowers) who then work collaboratively making low-cost, assistive technologies to assist the person with the disability in their day-to-day life. Once the event has concluded, all the assistive technologies that have been developed during the event are uploaded into a globally accessible open-source database. This allows for engineers around the world to view, use, and improve upon the designs, accelerating the developmental progress of many of these assistive technologies.

This year, Vanderbilt has seven different teams each working on a unique project to improve the life of the need knowers. For many of these teams, work began over a month ago on December 2nd during the PreTOM, an event where engineers met their teams and the need knower they would be designing their technology for. Team members worked nearly nonstop for 30 hours over the weekend, rushing to complete their project under the unique time constraints presented by the TOM makeathon. Makers wrapped up Sunday, presenting their finished projects to their need knowers. Some of this year’s projects include:

Team Jimmy- designed a machine-learning app to help Jimmy, a young boy with cerebral palsy, communicate with his peers.

Team Eli- working to create a Cheeto grabbing arm to help those with Prosthetics

Team Zion- also working on increasing the proficiency of prosthetics at grabbing small items

Why do Vanderbilt students get involved with TOM Global? Shiv Seth, a sophomore working on the HappyFest project, stated that he got involved to help “make a real, meaningful change in someone’s life.” Shiv is a development group leader and worked on Team HappyFest.

Team HappyFest was working with Adam and Melissa Stengel, a couple from Manhattan who run annual walks benefiting charities such as the National Hemophilia Foundation.

The goal of Shiv’s team was to create an inclusive obstacle course for families with disabilities to utilize and have fun on alongside those without disabilities. Shiv’s team was specifically tasked with designing different obstacles for this course. Since the event only takes place over a 72-hour period, Shiv and his team only got to see prototypes of his groups project this weekend. While most other groups will have a final project for their need knower to take home by the end of the weekend, Shiv’s team will have to wait and see if the Stengels implement their obstacles into their course.

Even if their obstacles are not adapted as is, Team HappyFest can rest easy knowing that others can still use and improve upon their designs to create a more refined course. That’s one of the beauties of TOM makeathon: even failures produce success. Since all product designs are uploaded onto an open source forum, other engineers from around the world can learn from the mistakes, successes, and all things in between from this Vanderbilt makeathon.

Students can get involved or support TOM: Vanderbilt by coming out to future events or by participating in the future.