5C Hackathon cracks the code to building online community

A laptop is open to a coding screen.
2020 5C Hackathon hosts technical challenges with the theme of Public Health and Innovation. (Nanako Noda • The Student Life)

While the coronavirus pandemic has dampened on-campus activity this semester, students across the 5Cs came together for a virtual hackathon last week to create community through innovation. This time around, 5C Hacks was eager to take the annual event online — while keeping the same excitement. 

Sponsored by virtual platform Shawee, the Hackathon proved a lucrative challenge for students of all levels and backgrounds to compete for a $5,000 prize pool, which put an iPad 8, QHD monitor and $150 Amazon gift card at stake.

Event organizers also brought together students, professors, student clubs and tech professionals to present educational workshops throughout Hack Week, a week’s worth of programming that started on Nov. 2 and concluded with the 36-hour Hackathon running from the night of Friday, Nov. 6, to early morning on Sunday, Nov. 8.

Perhaps not surprisingly, this year’s theme was Public Health and Innovation. Participants were prompted to weave problem solving and creativity into their technological skill sets to craft final products that addressed public health issues in an original manner, especially in the context of the pandemic. 

“Those projects were super interesting, just sort of seeing the creative ways that Claremont students were using to analyze vast arrays of data,” said Thomas Cintra HM ’22, who currently serves as the 5C Hacks president. “And on the total other side of the spectrum, there’s the people who worked on applications, websites and even hardware that could do something useful for the Claremont community.”

Sisters Summer Hasama PO ’24 and Evelyn Hasama PO ’24 spoke to TSL about their first-place winning project, Event Check, an iOS mobile application that seeks to “[minimize] the health risks students may pose on themselves and others,” according to their Hackathon project submission. With the possibility of returning to campus in the spring looming around the corner, the Hasamas were inspired to create a platform students could easily access on their phones to perform a series of health and safety checks, including thermometer readings and mask verifications. 

What we were really happy about was almost 85 percent of the participants were people who have never done a hackathon before.” — Thomas Cintra HM ’22

Within less than 30 hours, the Hasama sisters had developed an impressive working prototype of their application. Other students didn’t fail to meet the high bar either, with a team of four students from Harvey Mudd College coming in second place after designing an innovative hardware project that analyzed the pressure and wetness of people’s coughs to provide insight on what diseases they might have.

Besides just the technical deliverables of the event, though, Cintra believes the Hackathon is centered around community-building, especially for first-years and sophomores who may not have been able to receive the full-on campus life experience yet. The Hackathon garnered more than 100 participants and categorized students by beginner, intermediate or advanced levels, with the workshops throughout the week allowing all participants to obtain the foundation they needed to succeed in the Hackathon.

“What we were really happy about was almost 85 percent of the participants were people who have never done a hackathon before. And that’s exactly what we were looking for,” Cintra said.

Not only did 5C Hacks focus on providing a competitive opportunity for students to exercise their technological skills, but they also emphasized collaboration across the entire 5C community. Hack Week welcomed parties of all kinds, from the Pomona AI club to computer science professors to students even remotely interested in computer science, all of whom collectively engaged in fun and educational forums where they could experiment with technology together, even in a virtual format. 

“I think a lot of the richness in the Claremont CS community comes from how interdisciplinary it is,” said David Pitt HM ’23, the vice president sponsorship coordinator of 5C Hacks. “You see [Claremont McKenna College] economics majors who are also majoring in computer science, different Pomona students, Scripps students and Pitzer kids who are using computational skills and quantitative analysis skills in their different motivations with totally different backgrounds to derive very different insights.”

The Hackathon further constituted an opportunity for students to advance their personal and professional development even outside classes and their fields of study.

“A Hackathon is just one more opportunity for you to work on a cool project to get a job or an internship — or even more importantly, it’s like, ‘Oh, I didn’t get into this class because there’s too many students; well, I can just learn about it myself,'” Cintra said. 

“Computer science recruiters like to see hackathons on a resume; it shows that you’ve got an interest in learning new technologies...” — Professor Anthony Clark

Professor Anthony Clark, who teaches computer science at Pomona College, gave his Hack Week workshop on data manipulation in Python, during which he covered making predictions based on polling data for the presidential election. 

For whatever reason, computer science recruiters like to see hackathons on a resume; it shows that you’ve got an interest in learning new technologies and kind of applying it to new projects and just shows a general interest in learning,” Clark said.

While hackathons are often misconceived as events that only cater to computer science students, Clark offered that all students — even those without substantial CS backgrounds — can benefit from participating in hackathons due to the nature of what they require.

You really need the different aspects of it — you need someone on the business side, on the creative design side, somebody on the programming side to come up with something that’s very useful,” Clark said. “So in really well-run hackathons, you need people from all sorts of disciplines, not just computer science.”

Although the Hackathon was widely declared a success given that it typically involves a great investment of human interaction in order to fulfill its collaborative nature, 5C Hacks admitted that transitioning the Hackathon to a fully online medium posed several challenges. 

“I think the main difference we observed was that it was a little more isolated between teams, either because teams were collaborating remotely or just because you don’t have the experience of being all in one space and working around the other teams,” Pitt said.

However, the team behind 5C Hacks believes the experience has only left them better equipped to take the Hackathon in new and improved directions in the future, with the Hack Week next semester most likely also taking place online. The purpose is the same: to learn, connect and innovate together in ways that bring out technology’s potential to achieve social change.

“My vision for the Hackathon is just being a safe haven for people to, at least once a semester, have an opportunity to productively learn a new thing,” Cintra said.

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