Students Win Top Prize in U.S. Department of Defense ‘Hackathon’

Mobile App Will Help Train Soldiers in Nutrition in the Field


						From left, students Jeremy Poulin, Nick Ver Voort, Michael Stowell and Justin Mayhew receive a check for $3,000 for their winning nutrition-training Android app. Photo by Alexandra Foran

From left, students Jeremy Poulin, Nick Ver Voort, Michael Stowell and Justin Mayhew receive a check for $3,000 for their winning nutrition-training Android app. Photo by Alexandra Foran

08/08/2013
By Edwin L. Aguirre

Keeping American soldiers strong and properly nourished in the field has always been a top priority of the U.S. military. Each year, the Department of Defense (DoD) spends approximately $600 million on combat rations, such as Meals Ready to Eat, or MREs. More than 36 million of these meals are served annually to American troops deployed worldwide.

Currently, nutritional information for MREs is not available in an easily accessible format for soldiers as well as dietitians and other decision makers, according to the DoD. Therefore, troops cannot easily and accurately plan rations for missions, and all nutrition inquiries are handled on a case-by-case basis by contacting DoD nutrition experts.

A team of UMass Lowell undergraduate students — Nick Ver Voort, Jeremy Poulin and Michael Stowell of Computer Science and Justin Mayhew of Nutritional Science — hope to change that with MARTEE, the Mobile Access Ration Tracker and Energy Expenditure app that will enable soldiers to better understand and manage their combat nutrition requirements based on their MREs, the total weight of their combat gear and their planned activity. The goal is to increase the combat effectiveness of the troops, ultimately allowing them to outperform any adversary.

For its effort, the team was awarded top honor during the first-ever DoD mobile app “hackathon” held this summer in Cambridge. The event was organized by the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center (NSRDEC), which conducts research and development of MREs, as well as the non-profit, big-data center "hack/reduce" and the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. UMass Lowell beat 10 other teams of programmers, or “hackers,” to win the $3,000 grand prize.

During the 24-hour competition, the hackers were given extensive data sets on the nutritional properties of all the MREs, and it was up to them to find innovative ways that soldiers could visualize and interact with this data using a mobile device.

“Thanks to the insane code-writing abilities of Nick, Jeremy and Mike as well as my ideas for practical military/nutrition application, we were able to put together an awesome Android app,” says Mayhew, a combat veteran who had been deployed twice. “MARTEE was a huge hit and was very well received. Our group had a lot of fun competing, and of course, walking away with a hefty cash prize was a tremendous bonus.”

“Our students had a fabulous demo that not only worked, but actually made sense for soldiers, thanks to Justin’s conceptual and practical contributions,” says computer science Assoc. Prof. Fred Martin. “They were absolutely a dream team for this event.”

Ver Voort, Poulin and Stowell work in Martin’s Engaging Computing Group research lab while Mayhew was recruited to the team by Mindy Dopler-Nelson and Renee Barrile, assistant professor and lecturer, respectively, in the Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences Department.

“Justin was especially interested because he was in the military and was very familiar with MREs, so it was a natural fit for him,” says Barrile. “He’s an excellent student so we were happy he was able to participate and we knew he would do well.”

A Valuable Nutrition-Training Tool

The students realize that soldiers won’t have cell phones in combat, and even if they did, they are will have neither the time nor the patience to open an app to tell them what to eat that day.

“MARTEE was specifically designed to help train soldiers into forming healthy eating habits while they are here stateside and still have access to their personal mobile devices,” explains Poulin. “By proactively educating them about nutrition, we felt we could better prepare our soldiers for times when they don’t have access to resources like smartphones or nutritionists to help them maintain a healthy diet.”

“Our app is intended as a short and simple morning activity for soldiers in training,” adds Stowell, “so when they are deployed, they’ll know exactly what they need for their particular duties for the day.”

“This way, they won’t need to be constantly using an app,” notes Ver Voort.