Student-run hackathons use uncommon approaches to educate and inspire

A phone app to help the elderly remember family members’ faces. Software that transforms door knocks into a text alert for hearing-impaired users. Turn signals, but for people. A multiplayer game where crows wage war against...celery? All designed—and sometimes even built—at the University of Chicago in 24 hours or less.

Hackathons, daylong or overnight events in which teams work on a project in tech, data science or programming, have become a popular activity worldwide. But at UChicago, unique takes on the format organized by student groups supported by the Department of Computer Science help introduce middle-school girls to app design and tech careers or provoke more seasoned coders to use their talents in “uncommon” ways.

In January, a UChicago student organization called compileHer gathered 70 sixth-, seventh- and eighth-grade students from 50 schools across Chicago for an all-day hackathon at the Logan Center for the Arts. A student group formerly known as UChicago FEMMES, compileHer wanted to adopt the hackathon format to emphasize the importance of human-centered, accessible design in the creation of technology products today.

However most hackathons assume some level of programming or tech expertise, which can be intimidating to students who have had minimal exposure to computer science in their school curricula. The event was thus designed to cater to students from all different educational backgrounds by encouraging them to brainstorm app ideas and map their vision out with pen and paper.

Using the prompt “build something to make someone in your life happy,” teams of middle-schoolers worked with UChicago undergraduate volunteers to identify and design an app concept that addressed needs they had seen in their schools and homes. Mentors then transferred their sketches into a website that lets users navigate drawn menus and buttons as if though they were actual apps [Try one here].

The 20 hackathon groups each delivered a two-minute presentation on their creations and fielded questions from a panel of four Computer Science faculty members at the end of the day. Attendees designed a wide array of apps, including a gamified tool to boost student productivity, a resource to better facilitate pet care, and a memory assistant for the cognitively impaired.

“Overall the projects were very thoughtful. It was obvious that these students cared about the products they designed because they were building them for people in their lives that they cared about,” said fourth-year student Sydney Ko, compileHer co-director. “They had to identify the problems they saw in their lives and conceptualize how their product would be used in real life to address those issues.”

The group also organizes a yearly tech capstone event, 10-week coding workshops in Hyde Park schools, and field trips to the local offices of tech companies such as Google and Microsoft. It hoped that the design hackathon served as a gateway to computer science for its attendees.

“These girls are fantastic artists, fantastic problem-solvers and they clearly have all these really meaningful ideas on how to help the people in their lives. We wanted to use this event to show them that you don’t have to give up these existing passions to be able to succeed as a computer scientist,” said third-year student Devshi Mehrotra, co-director of compileHer. “You bring all that you are and all that you’ve learned in your life to this field and enrich it.”

Hacking with a side of skits and soylent

On the surface, Uncommon Hacks is a more traditional hackathon, a weekend-long gathering of college students combining their skills in coding, hardware hacking, software development and other tech areas on impromptu projects. But as the name suggests, little else about the event is orthodox—from the lack of a prompt beyond “create the weirdest, the quirkiest and the most amazing projects ever” and interludes of song-and-dance skits, flashmobs, yoga and Connect 4 contests.

The third edition of Uncommon Hacks brought 250 participants from the U.S. and Canada to the Polsky Exchange in early February. After a whirlwind 24 hours, more than 50 projects competed for awards ranging from “Best Hack for Social Good” to “Most Uncommon.” Intermittently, participants would take a break to learn about 3D printing or other maker tech, chat with one of the event’s sponsors about job opportunities, or play a game of “Soylent Pong” using the nutritional liquid meal favored by hackers.

The creative atmosphere inspired a broad array of submissions, ranging from the socially conscious to the “random and impractical,” said director and third-year student Ben Weinshel. But even the sillier projects carried beneficial side effects, he said, as students learned new programming languages, tinkered inside the guts of VR headsets, fitness trackers, and smart-home devices, and formed new collaborations and friendships.

“These girls are fantastic artists, fantastic problem-solvers, and they clearly have all these really meaningful ideas on how to help the people in their lives. We wanted to use this event to show them that you don’t have to give up these existing passions to be able to succeed as a computer scientist.” Devshi Mehrotra, third-year College student and co-director of compileHer

“We want people to do things they didn’t know how to do by exploring new technologies and learning in the process,” Weinshel said. “Uncommon Hacks is a space to do this kind of work and build tech skills for the future without huge commitments.”

Over the weekend, teams designed videogames, meme generators, data visualizations, an internet-controlled typewriter, and even one or two cryptocurrencies. One team programmed Amazon’s “Alexa” personal assistant to suggest random “x but for y” startup ideas, which then inspired “turn signals for people,” small lights triggered when a person turns their head. Another created ListenHear, an app that detects important sounds such as an ambulance siren, a door knock, or a baby’s cry and sends a notification to a person’s computer.

“Those who are hard of hearing do not have these cues in life and must rely more heavily on other senses and cues in the world,” wrote one UChicago team. “ListenHear attempts to bridge the gap in providing some insight to these people about the cues they would be otherwise missing.”