In the recent 24-hour climate hackathon held by the Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy, three University of Utah electrical and computer engineering Ph.D. students have won the second-place prize for their proposed solution that integrated innovative technology with an emphasis on energy equity and accessibility. The topic of the hackathon was Urban Heat. Teams were tasked with developing creative and community-centric solutions to the urban heating issue within the 24-hour time period.

From left to right: Sevda Zeinal Kheiri, Hollis Belnap and Luis Rodriguez-Garcia

The team, consisting of Sevda Zeinal Kheiri, Hollis Belnap and Luis Rodriguez-Garcia, all currently work in the University of Utah USMART lab on projects dealing with power systems and energy efficiency. With their unique respective lenses, the team came up with a three-part solution that combined “resiliency hubs”, portable cooling stations, and incentives for community members to use less energy during extreme heat periods.

“The first part of our solution, the resiliency hubs, are essentially large community centers to provide a protected place for people who are sensitive to heat waves and/or don’t have access to AC, or perhaps have inefficient AC,” explains Kheiri.

“But then we thought, what if someone cannot go there?” added Rodriguez-Garcia. “We’re thinking of older adults or people who require specific medical equipment. So, then we brought in another layer for portable cooling resources.”

The team added this portable cooling system program to their solution as an option for individuals who don’t have adequate cooling systems in their homes – whether that be the system isn’t efficient enough, or it isn’t powerful enough to actually cool the home – but also are not mobile enough to relocate to the resilience hubs.

“This would be a government-funded program where people could apply based on their needs, and qualifying applicants would get one of the portable systems delivered to their homes either during or just before extreme heat events,” says Belnap. “This was our way of making sure everyone had a solution that was actually possible for them.”

The third part of the team’s solution addresses people that may not need to go to one of the hubs or have a need for a portable cooling system.

“The final part of our solution is a program for people who wouldn’t have a need to go to a hub, and it involves education on how to use AC systems in a more efficient way,” explains Rodriguez-Garcia. “This would have an overall benefit to the power grid itself.”

“Our primary goal was to find a solution that would essentially save lives and improve life quality,” says Belnap. “Urban heating is becoming such a big problem, we want to be able to actually bring down living temperatures for people, improve comfort, and in some cases, save lives.”

Competitors in the Hackathon were not given the topic of the hackathon until the start of the 24-hour period and were working until the very last minute to solidify their solution.

“It was definitely intense at some points,” says Rodriguez-Garcia in regard to the 24-hour time limit. “It was really interesting to be under the pressure to develop a solution in such a limited time, but it was also a great experience. My favorite part was just brainstorming with my team for two or three hours and then adding all our layers from there – it was brilliant.”

“We submitted our slides just one minute before the deadline,” says Kheiri. “Overall, it was a great opportunity to collaborate with my team members and learn from them and share ideas.”

“The process was so fun,” says Belnap. “It definitely helped that we are all so passionate about the topic; I would absolutely do [the Hackathon] again.”

The Wilkes Center for Climate Science & Policy at the University of Utah hosted this Hackathon as part of their goal to foster educational and research programs that support climate innovation and develop a new generation of solution-oriented leaders. The center overall aims to catalyze innovative science and solutions to address climate change, and strives to provide transformative, integrative, and cutting-edge science, education, entrepreneurship, and practical solutions to tackle climate change in Utah, the United States, and the globe.

The climate hackathon brought together around 140 undergraduate and graduate students. Some arrived as teams of three or four, while others showed up alone, ready to partner with anyone. They were given “hack packs” with “hacking sheets” providing prompts and background information to get them rolling. Ultimately, the submissions that won over the Wilkes Center staff and leadership team were those that recognized the complexity of the problem and found ways to creatively integrate technologies, data and policies.


The three winning teams each received a cash prize and recognition for their outstanding efforts in developing a solution that has the potential to make a significant impact in the urban heating crisis. You can read about each of the three winning team’s solutions here.

Learn more about Electrical and Computer Engineering faculty research topics and discover ways to get involved in undergraduate research.