Hackathons – Hubs for Creating and Learning
When you hear the word, “Hacker” do you think of an emotionless, sleep-deprived person who is cooped up in a basement in front of a computer screen finding flaws in mobile phone software in exchange for black market money? Or do you think of members of the group called Anonymous who have hacked into some of the largest computer networks in the world?
I and thousands of students around the country are hackers too; but not that kind. A recent hackathon I attended will illustrate that we are much more.
On January 10th, two friends from Rutgers University and I joined about 100 other college students from across the country for Dragon Hacks: a hardware hackathon hosted by Drexel University’s IEEE Chapter and is one of more than 50 Major League Hacking events. Students identify a problem, consider the tools and software available to them, then strive to solve that problem within a short time period – for Dragon Hacks we had 24 hours. Afterward groups presented their prototypes to judges for prizes; some projects even evolved into startup companies. Traditional hackathon’s may be intense programming competitions in which Computer Science students invent new software or web applications, but at this hardware hackathon an array of electronic equipment was available, allowing students to be more creative than ever.
Help Was Available
Because this was my group’s first hackathon, we were glad to receive help from sponsors, mentors, and other hackers. Intel and Addteq lent cutting-edge microcontrollers for students to use in their projects, and the companies’ recruiters revealed that they look to hire from hackathons because they have the opportunity to network with innovative thinkers. One graduate student finished working on his project early and spent the rest of his time helping every other group debug their code. In addition, a Drexel IEEE student who lent me some computer hardware gave me a mini lecture complete with white-board drawings about Pulse Width Modulation.
The collaborative environment was optimal for us to work on our project: a smart alarm clock that would turn off only when it sensed someone actually got out of bed. We worked to integrate an Arduino microcontroller with a Kinect motion sensor, buzzer, and liquid crystal display (LCD), though not without a fair share of challenges. I burnt several LCD’s before I figured out my wiring problem, while my friends learned to parse the Kinect’s C# code for the first time.
Thirty teams presented a variety of creative projects, from devices that monitor brain activity to flying drones that were controlled with Myo hand gestures and Google Glass. One group built an obstacle detector that vibrated on the arm to alert a blind person of nearby objects. Some projects were more comical, such as an inflatable yet portable shower, or a guitar made with laser strings. My personal favorite was “Creepr” – an application that automatically calls your phone when you secretly press a button on your Pebble smartwatch, giving you a discrete way to get away from a bad date or out of a boring business meeting. Unfortunately, not every presentation went smoothly. Something malfunctioned during one group’s demo, rendering their robotic car (controlled by Leap Motion) immovable. Even so, the hackathon process is more valuable than fame or prizes, so I told them “this does not change at all how much you learned.”
For Students, Hackathons are Key
Some students who hear of hackathons shy away before trying it because they think they must have several years of college coursework in order to do well. But it’s not about winning a medal, it’s about gaining skills not customarily taught in the classroom’s lecture-homework-exam cycle. The skills I learned at Dragon Hacks – teamwork, improvisation, and tenacity – will be useful for senior design projects and are highly valued by employers, who seek fast learners for jobs that are more competitive than ever.
Moreover, hackathons don’t have to stop with solely electrical or computer projects; the same concept of short timeframe free-for-all building competitions can be extended to all areas of science and technology for many ages. If students kindle their passion for technology and educators work to integrate hack-like events into course curricula, students will be better prepared for the working world. The first day of a job can be just as intimidating as going to your first hackathon. But if students garner all the technical knowledge, equally valuable soft skills, and challenge-embracing confidence they gain from hackathons, they will definitely be on a path toward success.
For more information about Major League Hacking, visit mlh.io.
Jaimie Swartz is a student at Rutgers University in New Jersey studying Electrical and Computer Engineering. She is also Treasurer of the Rutgers Collegiate Section of the Society of Women Engineers and part of the Rutgers Honors Academy. She plans to specialize in power electronics and one day take on a leading role in shaping the renewable energy industry.