Creating the night away: Young innovators descend on Mount Holyoke College for hackathon



Last modified: Wednesday, November 25, 2015

SOUTH HADLEY — Over 200 students showed up at Mount Holyoke College Friday ready to stay up all night, but they weren’t there for a party.

They came for a hackathon — a competitive event in which computer programmers and those in similar fields work in teams to create innovative projects.

Some hackathons focus on software or applications, but the Hack Holyoke event Friday and Saturday was a “hardware hack” — participants tinkered with sensors, LED lights, laptops and other hardware, trying to come up with the most interesting project. They can build anything, as long as they finish it by 2:30 p.m. Saturday. That’s when they will demonstrate their inventions for judges.

Those in the computer science world have taken the word “hack” — usually used to refer to cyber crime — and given it new meaning. Hacker Jake O’Reilly, 19, a sophomore at the University of Massachusetts, said the term refers to a programmer using something in a new way, different from the way it is usually used.

As the hackers gathered in Hooker Auditorium Friday evening, examples of the kinds of projects they could create were on display. They included a ballet skirt with LED lights on it that changed color when the wearer moved and a dragon stuffed animal with a plastic heart on its chest that lit up to simulate a beating heart. The dragon was designed so when someone hugged it, its heart would “beat” faster.

Before the hacking began in earnest, the 216 participants sat in groups, alternating between gossiping and brainstorming for their projects. While most people did not have specific plans in mind, they were confident they would come up with something good.

“Our plan is: step 1, make a plan, step 2, execute the plan,” O’Reilly joked. He and his teammate, Daoxu Ye, were among the many first-time hackers at the event.

Ye, also a 19-year-old sophomore at UMass, said he is better with software than hardware. But the team had a plan to deal with their lack of knowledge about some of the hardware, too. “Google — lots of Google,” O’Reilly said with a grin.

The hackathon was organized by the Computer Science Society of Mount Holyoke. While the event drew many Mount Holyoke students, more were from the other four colleges in the Valley, said Prianka Saha, 18, a Mount Holyoke student and society member who was registering hackers.

“But we even have some from way out, like Perdue and MIT,” she said.

Hackathons have become more popular, widespread and well-organized in the last five years, said Jason Berlinsky, a representative of Major League Hacking, the official organization of hacking. He compared Major League Hacking to the NCAA for college sports.

He said he attended his first hackathon — which was sponsored by Yahoo — five years ago as a student at the University of Michigan. Now, colleges and universities all over the world hold hackathons.

Some are very hard to get into and even harder to win, O’Reilly said. “The one at MIT is super-competitive,” he said. “I think they get 6,000 applications and you win tons of money.”

New ways

During the opening remarks at Hack Holyoke, a nervous giggle rolled through the crowd of hackers when speaker Jarin Chu, a 2012 Mount Holyoke graduate, called them innovators.

“The thought of a challenge probably excites you,” said Chu, who works at a Burlington technology firm called Opfocus. “You’re creative. You’re analytical. You’re seeking new ways of thinking about how to do old things.”

She also pointed out, as did other speakers, that 53 percent of the hackers at the event were women, which is rare at hackathons. She said that gender inequality is the biggest challenge to overcome in the world of computer science and technology.

“I don’t see a lot of women in my day-to-day work,” she said. “I’m very used to be surrounded by men.”

Elyse Mancuso, 19, a sophomore at Smith College, said it was “nice” that there were nearly equal numbers of men and women at Hack Holyoke, but that wasn’t why she and her teammates came to compete. It was more that it was close and not too intimidating.

“We haven’t done a hackathon before. Our goal was really just to go to a hackathon and see what they’re like,” Mancuso said. “We were just talking about what we want to build. Our plan is to attend workshops later tonight and then figure it out.”

Pragya Bajoria, 21, a senior, said the event drew a lot of “101 students,” but club members were giving demonstrations and workshops throughout the evening to get them up to speed on the different pieces of hardware. Bajoria is the president of the college’s Computer Science Society, which organized the event.

She said the kinds of things student hackers come up with is impressive. At the last Hack Holyoke event, one team made a breathalyzer that could work with voice commands. Another group made a virtual piano that was projected onto a surface and could be played by putting a hand in front of each virtual key.

“It’s just automating different kinds of everyday objects,” she said.

Rebecca Everett can be reached at reverett@gazettenet.com.


 

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