Hackathon fosters creativity in computer technology

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Members of the community of Poughkeepsie joined Vassar students in a 24-hour hackathon where attendees were invited to explore new technologies like virtual reality headsets. Photo by Eilis Donahue

The word “hacking” tends to connote digi­tal theft or crime, but it can also be about creation. Over 24 hours, students coded and programmed at the recent Community Hack to put together programming projects that would benefit the community. Laura Barreto ’17 and Kelly Yu ’17 organized the Community Hack event on Feb. 5 and 6.

Barreto’s vision for the hackathon was to in­spire students to share knowledge of and passion for computer science. She wanted to be sure that anyone with an interest would attend and em­brace the chance to learn code, adding that tem­plates and teachers were available to help those with less prior knowledge. “Code is something that is in our life, all around us,” she asserted. “[For example] the Paint tool is something that al­most every one of us as a child played with. We’ve all touched that, and years ago someone wanted to make that and made it with code.”

The 24-hour event, which included a group competition to create community-oriented proj­ects, was open to anyone in the Poughkeepsie area in high school or beyond. In addition to the competition, the hackathon featured a variety of speakers, including industry professionals, stu­dents and professors, and demonstrations of the sundry applications of computer science skills. “[We have] people from all parts of their life: someone just starting out in a company, someone still in school and wanting to teach others, peo­ple who have been in industry for 60 years and want to talk about their technology,” said Barreto. “It’s just really awesome to see enthusiasm for the subject matter across all different age levels and different glimpses of career paths as well.”

Two Vassar alumni offered advice and inspira­tion to current students. Allyson Pemberton ’15, now a software engineer for Google, answered students’ questions about working in the tech industry. She assured students that finding a job with only a bachelor’s degree in CS is possible and common. “The jump from school to industry is going to be hard at any level, but they under­stand that when you’re coming in as a new grad and they really help you,” Pemberton assured. “I would say I was just as prepared as any other new grad.” However, she also advocated for practicing interviews, taking internships and honing addi­tional skills outside of the classroom.

Pemberton also discussed being a woman in the tech industry, being outnumbered by men on her team. Women make up just a fraction of tech professionals, and Barreto estimated that only about a third of Vassar CS students are female. She especially lamented the lack of an organiza­tion for women in computer science at Vassar, which she said was denied because a Women in Science pre-org already exists. “It’s always really disappointing because Grace Hopper was a Vas­sar alum, and the fact that the CS department isn’t just this grand thing that comes up [among the] best CS departments in the United States, that’s shocking to me, because Grace Hopper was one of the pioneers of computer science,” she noted.

Other speakers focused on different career paths that CS majors might pursue. Casey Han­cock ’15 presented his work in cinematic virtual reality. He noted that while people think of virtual reality as an entertainment commodity, it has po­tential to have other societal benefits–for exam­ple, simulating and thus furthering understanding of the plight of victims of human trafficking. Han­cock said, “[VR] is an interesting industry, and we’re not sure how society will react to it.”

Student presenters demonstrated the abilities they have developed, both through the CS de­partment and on their own time. Thomas Lum ’17 shared his game development abilities and described his passion for coding in his talk titled “Make Games Quick,” a reprisal of his presenta­tion at last year’s hackathon. His audience had the opportunity to make modifications to a computer game through simple coding. He also explained some theories behind game development, and reminded students of how present and valuable coding is in their lives. Lum said, “I like doing CS because I did English and Theater before. I real­ly like to create. I happened upon the medium of coding, and it clicked with how my brain works.”

This year, Community Hack was sponsored by several companies, including Google, Yik Yak, EEVO and Dyalog, the world’s leading imple­menter of the coding language APL. Dyalog rep­resentatives were present as judges for the com­petition, speakers and teachers for students who wanted to learn the APL language, a resource of which several students took advantage.

Students who took part in the competition said that they appreciated the chance to learn about coding and test their skills. Hao Wu ’18 mused, “It forces you to learn a lot of things…” Her project teammate Junyan Qi ’19 agreed, but expressed dis­appointment that they were not able to listen to many of the presentations, since they had devoted their time to working on their project.

The final projects were judged at the end of the 24-hour period, and prizes were distribut­ed. “Most Entertaining Hack” went to the high schoolers for their video game, while “Most Com­plete Hack” went to a group of Vassar students, comprised of Kathryn Hodge ’17, Angela Assante ’18, Jayce Rudig-Leathers ’16 and George Wit­teman ’18, for their app designed to help Vassar students locate events with free food on campus. “Most Learned for a Hack Hacker” went to the middle school student, for creating a prototype of a device similar to an Apple Watch.

Barreto hopes that events like these will help spread the word about the diversity of CS appli­cations, and that Vassar will encourage further ex­ploration of CS in a multidisciplinary setting. She said, “[C]omputer science isn’t just for engineer­ing, it’s also for a lot of other things. It could be applied to music, art, chemistry, biology, anything you really want. [Community Hack] is a way of having people see that it’s really cool, and that it’s not the stereotype that people make it out to be.”

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