For the number of people packed into the Cybertorium in Penn State’s IST Building, it’s surprisingly quiet. Except for the clicking of hundreds of keyboards, the room is hushed as students perch in swivel chairs and work heads down, shoulders hunched over their latest hacks.
Yes, they’re hackers. But in this context — at the University’s annual hacking marathon — that’s a good thing.
“The way we use the word ‘hacking’ means building something awesome and solving problems using programming, not breaking into networks or wreaking havoc,” said Christina Platt, a junior studying engineering science and the event’s co-director. “This is the opposite of the malicious cyber attacks we hear about in the news. The students here are focused on learning, sharing and turning ideas into finished products in just one day.”
The spirit to do good is the cornerstone of HackPSU, Penn State’s annual 24-hour hackathon, which was filled with bursts of intense coding interspersed with educational workshops and demonstrations. This year, more than 400 students attended the event on March 28 and 29 to create apps and websites aimed, primarily, at making the world a better place.
At the end of the weekend, the sleep-deprived students presented their finished (or in-the-works) apps and websites for judging. One team won the Capital One Best Financial Hack for developing a tool that enables people to donate spare change from everyday purchases to small-business owners in developing countries.
In the past few years, hackathons have been popping up at universities all over the country — MHacks at the University of Michigan and PennApps at the University of Pennsylvania are particularly grand — and some techies are even calling them the next career fair.
For college and high school students, hackathons are a place to learn, create, make friends, and network with recruiters from tech companies looking for employees who are creative, collaborative, and passionate enough about coding to work on a project all weekend.
“It’s one thing to show up to a career fair with a résumé, and it’s another to work side by side with a mentor from Microsoft at a hackathon,” Platt said. “They get to see how you work under pressure with other people. You can be the best programmer in the world, but if you can’t work with a team, how useful are you to a company?”
The culmination of the weekend’s activities was a happy relief for Platt, who a year ago had never even heard of a hackathon, let alone organized one.
After hearing Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian give a talk on campus her sophomore year, she decided to expand her extracurricular pursuits. At the talk, Ohanian explained that entrepreneurship is French for “has ideas, does them,” which stuck with Platt. “I thought, ‘I can do that,’” she said. “At the time, I was in the Blue Band, which I loved, but knew Penn State had so much to offer.”
Leaving the marching band behind, she got involved with Innoblue, a community of entrepreneurs on campus. Fast forward to a year later, Platt was part of a team of Penn Staters that won second place at the Civitas Hackathon in February (a Penn State team also won first place).
“There wasn’t a single computer science major on either of our teams, which goes to show you don’t need to 100 percent know what you’re doing technically -- it’s all about learning, fleshing out an idea and knowing how to pitch what you’ve created,” Platt said. “Hackathons are really creativity and innovation competitions that happen to use programming as their medium.”
She says anyone can teach themselves to code, like she did, with patience and hard work.
To help beginners get started making something, HackPSU offered a series of workshops about such topics as building personal websites, Android, iOS, data science, and Web apps and dynamic websites.
Dan Coughlin, director of software development in Services and Solutions at Penn State, taught a three-part introductory workshop on Ruby On Rails, a programming framework he also teaches in the College of Information Sciences and Technology.
He says unlike other hackathons, HackPSU is unique because it’s focused primarily on teaching and learning more than competition.
“It’s not the kind of thing where you can become an expert in a weekend — no one would think they could learn enough carpentry to build a house in two days — but hackathons certainly help beginners better understand the questions they need to be asking and the tools they need to be using to get started down this path,” Coughlin said.
Stan Chan, a chemical engineering student, had never written a single line of code before last Thanksgiving break when he completed Harvard’s online Introduction to Computer Science class. Since then, he has built a website, blog and even a dancing robot.
“Because I’m not a computer scientist or Web developer, learning is my goal at each of the hackathons I’ve been to. It’s not always about creating a finished project,” Chan said. “For me, the value is in learning to code in order to solve problems and make people happy.”
At HackPSU, Chan started learning Django, a Python Web development framework, and began work on an online scheduling system for the University’s Engineering Ambassadors, an outreach group that connects Penn State and prospective engineering students for campus tours and other activities. With about 60 volunteers, it was getting complicated to manually schedule volunteers for weekly events, so Chan decided to use his coding skills to help. Though he didn’t finish the site over the weekend (nor was he planning to), he does hope to complete and gift it to the club before he graduates next year.
“I don’t know if I could have pulled off a coffee meeting when I was 20, let alone a hackathon,” joked Coughlin. “Students on this campus are unbelievably motivated. In my experience, more of them are thinking about and building projects dedicated to helping people than trying to sell an app for a million dollars.”
That’s certainly true of Platt, who, starting at Penn State, wants to make an impact on the world.
“I want HackPSU to be one of the things that really drives innovation at Penn State,” she said. “My personal goal between now and when I graduate is to make Penn State the most innovative school that I can, and helping to grow a culture of makers and entrepreneurs is a great jumping off point. People say hackathons have changed their lives, and for me, that’s definitely true.”
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