Creating solutions together

Students in BBH and IST team up for this semester's mHealth Challenge

This semester's mHealth, which is open to the public, will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. on Nov. 17 in Room 113 in the IST building. Part of Penn State's Global Entrepreneurship Week, mHealth allows undergraduate students to work in cross-discipline teams to mock-up a mobile health application that addresses a societal health need associated with a specific targeted audience. Students in biobehavioral health and information sciences and technology will collaborate. Credit: Lee EricksonAll Rights Reserved.

UNIVERSITY PARK, Pa. — Drawing on personal experiences with real-world problems, students in the Department of Biobehavioral Health (BBH) and the College of Information Sciences and Technology (IST) are putting their heads together to create mobile technologies that advance health and well-being.

As part of Penn State’s Global Entrepreneurship Week (GEW) this semester, students in BBH and IST will participate in mHealth, a challenge that allows undergraduate students to work in cross-discipline teams to mock-up a mobile health application that addresses a societal health need associated with a specific targeted audience. The event is scheduled for Nov. 17.

The PSU mHealth is modeled after a typical consulting scenario in which a group of subject matter experts (in this case BBH) work with technology experts (IST students) to create a prototype that addresses a defined program or issue for a defined audience.

Students from JoAnn Foley-Defiore’s course in BBH and students from Jim Jansen’s IST course are the collaborators.

“The idea is to really take a behavioral theory … and enable it through mobile technology,” said Meg Small, assistant director for innovations and social change at the Bennett Pierce Prevention Research Center.

Specifically, BBH students prepare a brief describing a target population, health need and behavioral objectives designed to address the health need. Students in IST act as technology consultants working with BBH students to create a mock-up of a mobile app that addresses the defined need. Then, BBH and IST students prepare idea pitches with faculty support. Participating teams pitch their ideas to a panel of judges during GEW. The challenge is held once per semester. Last year was its inaugural year.

There are five teams and each team is composed of two to three BBH students and two to three IST students, Small said.

Last spring’s winning team was offered internships by a technology company in Silicon Valley, California.

This year’s students will have other opportunities within Penn State and the local community to work on their ideas after the competition. Lion Launchpad and New Leaf Initiative are among the collaborators, Small said.

“The variety and breadth of ideas … it really is amazing,” she said.

One example of an application that was pitched at last year’s competition was a system to track hospital patients. One of the student participants had an experience where she had been unable to locate a friend who was rushed to the hospital for emergency surgery, Small said. She wanted to fix the problem by developing technology to help visitors locate family and friends admitted to the hospital.

“The students are amazing,” she said. “Boy, they come in polished.”

Another example from last year’s event was an application to offer long-distance technical assistance to farmers to improve their tomato crops, Small said.

“The students really do love it,” she said. “It’s a very high-energy event.”

Senior BBH student Kele Powell and her team received second place for their mobile mock-up application, “Beat-the-Betes,” in the Spring 2014 mHealth Challenge.

“Our target audience was children with Type 2 Diabetes and the aim of our interactive application was to help these children manage their disease through an educational treasure board game,” Powell said.

She said she believes her participation in the challenge helped her understand the importance of two colleges working together.

“I personally learned a lot from working with the IST students,” she said. “Their field of study is completely different than BBH, but health care and technology are extremely connected. It is very important to experience how two majors can coincide. In this case, our team was able to use our knowledge towards promoting health.”

Additionally, the IST students helped keep Powell and her fellow BBH teammate on track, she said.

“BBH students are taught to have a comprehensive understanding of health,” she said. “We study several topics such as physiology, anatomy, psychology, sociology and biology. Therefore, our minds can be all over the place when we talk about a certain health issue. We think about all of the different factors that come into play when examining a disease or disparity, which can get complicated.”

Powell continued, “However, my IST teammates were very good at keeping us focused on one thing at a time and pinpointing the most important topics to pitch to the audience.”

This semester Powell said she is most looking forward to seeing how the BBH students transform their initial ideas from their project briefs, which she provided feedback on.

“I don’t want to give away any hints, but I am very excited to see how they will incorporate all of these ideas into a mobile application with the IST students,” Powell said.

Powell said the mHealth Challenge is a great way to help students in their future careers because it teaches them time management and tests their ability to work in groups. Both of these characteristics, she said, apply to any career.

“The challenge is definitely a lot of work in a small period of time, so learning to manage your time wisely is important to successfully compete in the challenge,” Powell said. “The students also learn how to work effectively in interdisciplinary groups which is easy for some and difficult for others. Not to mention, you pitch your mobile application (to) at least 150 people, if not more. Therefore, public speaking also comes into play.”

Powell said another benefit to the challenge is that it gives students the opportunity to connect with professors, which is important at such a large university.

“It allows students to expand their networks and meet people that they would never have met if they did not participate in the challenge,” she said. “Also, it gives PSU professors the chance to be more involved with their students.”

Last fall, the mHealth Challenge was the top attended event during Global Entrepreneurship Week, Small said.

“We’re going for the record again this year,” she said. “I think it’s a good example of engaged scholarship.”

This semester’s judges include Mary Good, president of Good Advice, LLC; Ed Marx, director of strategic analytics at Vanderbilt University Medical Center and board member of the Schreyer Honors College; and Jeffrey Goldberg, chief operating officer of TIAG.

The public is invited to attend the mHealth Challenge pitch night, which will be held from 6 to 8 p.m. in Room 113 in the IST building.

Penn State’s GEW is Nov. 16 through 21. For more information visit

For more information about mHealth visit

Last Updated October 28, 2014