The first of several retractable jump rope stations designed by Virginia Commonwealth University students has been installed outside a Jackson Ward laundromat, offering neighborhood children a chance to jump rope by themselves or with friends.
The stations — part of a project called Upswing — were the capstone project of a team of Certificate in Product Innovation students in VCU’s da Vinci Center, a collaboration of VCU’s Schools of the Arts, Business, Engineering and College of Humanities and Sciences that advances innovation and entrepreneurship.
“I hope that when kids are sitting here at the cleaners, instead of just being on their phone, that they get out and enjoy the nice day. Even when it’s not a nice day, it’s always good to step away from the screen, unwind and disconnect for a bit,” said Owen Thompson, an Upswing team member and marketing major who graduated last spring. “If this gives them a way to do that and have some fun, maybe have a little friendly competition with their neighborhood friends, then I think that’s a really good thing.”
Sports Backers — the nonprofit organization that organizes the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K, Dominion Riverrock and the Anthem Richmond Marathon — came up with the idea for jump rope stations outside Richmond barber shops, salons and other establishments to encourage physical activity and play.
In January, Sports Backers won a national grant from KaBOOM!, a nonprofit dedicated to bringing balanced and active play to the daily lives of kids, particularly those growing up in poverty, as part of its “National Play Everywhere Challenge.” KaBOOM! awarded grants to 50 projects nationwide during the challenge.
“The whole concept was, how do we insert and essentially create interventions in the urban fabric for play?” said Ruth Morrison, chief innovation officer at Sports Backers. “The idea is we’re doing street level interventions, where we’re making our cities themselves more intrinsically playful.”
Sports Backers and Active RVA contacted the da Vinci Center and asked if a team would be willing to design the jump rope stations.
“We turned to the da Vinci Center and said, ‘We have this great idea. We think it can work. But we need help building it and solving the design challenges,’” Morrison said. “We knew, for example, that it needed to be a retractable station, but it couldn’t retract too fast. That’s probably just one of 20 design challenges we [foresaw].”
“We needed partners and found partners in the da Vinci students, who were able to get down to the nitty-gritty of how this thing would work, and how it would work in a safe, effective way that would inspire play and activity in the urban environment,” she said.
Allison Schumacher, director of academic alchemy at the da Vinci Center, oversaw the team of students who worked on the Upswing stations in the spring. The project had a variety of parameters, she said, including that the station would need to feature a retractable jump rope, be usable by either one or two people at the same time, and be free standing.
“First, they had to figure out the mechanics of one person holding the end of a jump or tying it to a table, and then jumping by themselves or with another person, they discovered the rope would tangle and start wrapping up, coil up in itself,” she said. “So they developed a handle that has two parts to it, one part allows the rope to continue to move in a circle and the other part is what you hold, while the first part rotates within it.”
The team took an early prototype jump rope station to the Ukrop’s Monument Avenue 10K, where an estimated 100 children tested it out.
“They got feedback from the kids, who told them the handle was too big. So they turned it into a kind of a cone shape,” Schumacher said. “They iterated on the design of the handle four or five times throughout the course of the semester.”
Upswing team member Julia Donahoe, a graphic design major who graduated in the spring, was responsible for liaising between the team, Sports Backers and mentors, and worked on design issues.
“We all got our hands on almost every element of the project,” she said. “Our biggest challenge was the engineering of the handle, which we prototyped at least four times before the final design. We also had the challenge of designing the shape of the structure according to the series of limitations we were given by Sports Backers and according to limitations set by manufacturing companies.”
Another challenge involved figuring out ways to keep the rope from getting tangled when it retracted back into the station, said Aaron Ni'jai, a marketing major who graduated in the spring.
Helping with the design were faculty members such as Peter Pidcoe, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Physical Therapy who has joint appointments in the School of Engineering's Department of Biomedical Engineering and the School of Medicine's Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. Pidcoe helped the team build an adjustable brake system that slows down the speed of the jump rope’s retraction.
The experience of working on the project, solving the myriad design challenges and producing a product that is now installed in Jackson Ward is amazing, Ni'jai said.
“It had its good times and its stressful times but overall I think we all learned a lot,” he said. “I'm so glad that I got to work on this project with Sport Backers. Even with another chance I wouldn't switch the group or the project for any other.”
The first station was recently installed outside Moizelles Cleaners & Launderer in Jackson Ward. Additional stations are slated to be installed soon.
Donahoe said she is excited that the first station has been installed, and hopes that the idea spreads beyond Richmond.
“We hope that in time this mobile jump rope station will expand far beyond just Richmond to other major cities in the country,” she said. “I'll be excited for the day when I'm walking down a New York City street and see one of the stations on the sidewalk.”
For Thompson, seeing the jump rope station installed outside Moizelles on a recent afternoon was a thrill.
“Most of the classes that you take throughout college, you’re learning about hypothetical scenarios. What drew me to da Vinci is that you actually get to see the work you do actually come to fruition,” he said. “It’s kind of nuts to see this standing here. Nine, 10 months ago, this was just an idea. But we put in all the hours of hard work, and now it’s actually here.”