As the year draws to a close and students feel the tightening noose of exams and deadlines, all-nighters have become part of many students’ daily schedules. Some computer science students are pulling them, not because they have to, but because it’s fun.
On April 14, the 5C Hackathon returned to Pomona College after a year-long hiatus. This 24-hour event brought together students from across the Claremont Colleges for a marathon of coding on a diverse range of projects in Pomona’s Edmunds Ballroom. The event was put together by a team of first-time student organizers, including Hannah Mandell PO ’23 and Sam Malik PO ’24. Strava and Bloomberg served as the main sponsors of the event.
In the days leading up to the event, the Hackathon team ran “Hack Week,” a series of workshops meant to help educate attendees about technical skills, product management, socially relevant technology issues and career development. Participants in the Hackathon do not need to know how to code, so these events help educate newcomers and make the event more accessible.
Among the workshop topics were “Intro to Python and Data Analysis,” “Liberal Arts as a Path to Technology Consulting” and “The World in Our Hands: Exploring ArcGIS.” Many of these workshops were taught by alums of the Claremont Colleges who now hold careers in computer science.
After participating in Hackathon virtually in 2020 as a beginner coder, Mandell had such a rewarding experience that she couldn’t wait for the next year. Only it didn’t happen. So by spring semester of her senior year, she realized if she wanted to ensure the legacy of Hackathon, she’d have to do it herself.
Mandell sent out a Slack message on the Pomona Computer Science Channel asking if anyone would be interested in a Hackathon. Her and ten other computer science (CS) majors met in Walker Lounge at 6 p.m. in the middle of February to deliberate. Malik was one of the members in attendance.
Before she knew it, it was April, and 200 students were gathered together, coding late into the night.
“Hackathons are daunting, and the fact that you have to sit in a place for 12 or 24 hours straight, coding away at a problem to build a solution that does something for 24 hours with possibly people you don’t know can be daunting to a beginner,” Malik said. “So what we really wanted to focus on was how … we make this an inclusive environment where everyone feels that they have a place in this Hackathon, where everyone can code and create [and where] everyone can bring something new or different to the table.”
The Hackathon consisted of four categories that hackers could enter their projects into: Education, Sustainable Earth, Health Equity and Get Out Vote. They also had an overlay category for beginners, as the event was open to all 5C students, with a big focus on those new to coding.
“We tried to design this Hackathon in a way that encourages participation from anyone, no matter how tech-oriented you are,” Malik said. “We even encouraged interdisciplinary teams because, of course, we’re the 5Cs. We’re a bunch of small liberal arts colleges. We want solutions that blur the lines between computer science and other fields of study. So we definitely did see that with the Hackathon submissions.”
In order to ensure winners prizes and organize workshops, Mandell and Malik reached out to companies and alumni, sending out cold email after email and scouring LinkedIn to secure sponsors. With the tech industry laying off hundreds of thousands of workers, securing any kind of funding was a gamble. But not only were they able to convince companies to sponsor their event, they also had Meta workers reach out to them asking to judge the competition.
Mandell described what she learned from organizing Hackathon from scratch, and what she hopes students will take away from participating.
“I feel like if you stick true to the values that you project to others, they will also want to embody them. We really wanted to do Tech for Good,” Mandell said. “I think projecting that idea of this [being] a space for good [was vital]. And people really did [honor that theme] with the projects that they created … It was phenomenal to see people lean into that.”
Participant Yotam Twersky PO ’25, whose team won best project in the Sustainable Earth category, talked about winning his first Hackathon and how it was working on the project with his friends.
“[Hackathon] was cool because I got to kind of work with people who are like my good friends … We are all very engaged in similar coursework, like CS and data science stuff. We hang out a lot, but we don’t really have the opportunity to work on academic projects together, even though we’ve been in classes together. And so this was just a really cool opportunity to work with them … and bond over an academic project,” Twersky said.
Next year’s Hackathon director, Malik discussed his vision for Hackathon moving forward, starting with asking for sponsors and contacting companies earlier than two months before the actual event. However, in addition to logistical changes, Malik hopes to turn Hack Club into more than just an annual event.
“Instead of just at the Hackathon event, we could continuously organize these events so that there’s continuous participation, while still holding true to the core value that these hackathon workshops are meant for everybody to learn and grow from.” Malik said. “The whole point of the 5C Hackathon, and the club as a whole, is for everyone to learn and grow no matter who you are.”