CommunityHack to cultivate competition in programming

Growing up, Laura Barreto ’17 believed computer science was uncool because she had never been exposed to it. The CommunityHack event she is organizing is an attempt to help others find joy in computer science. Photo By: Palak Patel
Growing up, Laura Barreto ’17 believed computer science was uncool because she had never been exposed to it. The CommunityHack event she is organizing is an attempt to help others find joy in computer science. Photo By: Palak Patel
Growing up, Laura Barreto ’17 believed computer science was uncool because she had never been exposed to it. The CommunityHack event she is organizing is an attempt to help others find joy in computer science. Photo By: Palak Patel

For most, the concept of hacking carries a negative stigma, due in large parts to things like Julian Assange and his Wikileaks and the recent hacking of celebrities’ private photos. However, members of the Computer Science Department are organizing a CommunityHack event for Saturday, Dec. 6 that will showcase a different side of hacking and of computer science in general.

The CommunityHack is part of a much larger event known as Local Hack Day, which is run by the Major League Hacking (MLH) organization. Founded in 2013, the MLH is responsible for overseeing the over 70 hackathon events taking place at colleges all over the United States and United Kingdom as well as the more than 25,000 students who participate in them.

At first glance, one might think that the MLH is endorsing and promoting a safe space for hackers to continue breaking into computer systems and peoples’ private information, but the MLH is actually striving for a different definition of hacking: one that focuses on exploring innovative new ways of programming.

Hackathons, which are part of the MLH’s national league that features colleges around the nation competing for points and rankings, are usually held on weekends, in which programmers form teams to work on projects. These projects are up to the teams and are allowed to be on just about anything. For instance, the group messaging app GroupMe originated as a team project at a hackathon in 2010.

Aaron Hill ’16, a computer science major who is helping to organize the event, feels that the definition of hacking is misunderstood by a lot of people. “Well, in computer science the term, ‘hacking’ can mean simply putting together a program,” said Hill. “A hackathon is where you slap together a program under a deadline.”

Though many hackathons are huge events with cash prizes, CommunityHack will be focused on a less competitive and more educational kind of hackathon.

Laura Barreto ’17 is a computer science major who conceived and organized the idea for the CommunityHack. Barreto feels that more people should be able to experience the opportunities that computer science has to offer.

“Once I realized that there was a chance to get the brilliant and passionate people of Vassar College involved, I knew I had to bring a “hackathon” to Vassar,” said Barreto. “At Vassar, I’ve had the opportunities to witness amazing feats accomplished through Computer Science. But I had to go to college to realize this…something that a lot of people may not even consider, or afford.”

The CommunityHack will also have a community-oriented event aimed at educating attendees about computer science. Students and faculty will be making presentations on various projects they are working on; visiting professor Jay McCarthy will be showing off the 8-bit music synthesizer he designed and built. They will also be hosting workshops on various aspects of computer science, such as beginning programming languages like LOGO which allows users to draw with their code.

“There will be a live stream of different talks being given throughout the day at different events on topics such as ‘Intro to iOS,’ or ‘Intro to Git,’” said Barreto. “[The Hackathon will also have] a Skype presentation given by a representative from Harmonix in order to show students how CS is used in relatable topics.”

In between the presentations and workshops, attendees will be able to socialize with faculty and student members of the Computer Science Department over lunch and snacks provided to those in attendance. The event itself is free and open to everyone—both Vassar students and members of the community. According to Hill, this is because the event itself is designed for people of any, or no, level of skill with computers.

“Anyone can join, regardless of experience, since we’re making it accessible to people who might not have coding experience,” said Hill.

Barreto agreed, citing her own experience growing up and not being able to discover her interest in computer science until college.

“I saw a prime opportunity to give students from the surrounding high schools awareness of CS as a field of study,” said Barreto.

Barreto reported that there are about 20 Vassar students already registered for the event and she is hoping to get at least an equal amount of students from local high schools or other parts of the community, such as Marist.

“While MLH indicates that the hackathon should be competitive, Vassar’s CommunityHack will not have a competitive aspect, instead taking a more collaborative, introductory and encouraging approach,” Barreto said. “This will hopefully be a more inviting environment for the high school students!”

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