Meaningful Hackathon Projects

February 27, 2017

As featured in the Yale Admissions Blog. Thanks, Jinchen!

Imagine 200 boxes of pizza stacked to the ceiling, enough air mattresses to fill two basketball courts, and over 1000 nylon "swag" bags full of T-shirts and other goodies. Imagine 1000 people, all in the same gigantic gym.

YHack 2016

Welcome to the world of hackathons.

Despite its devious sounding name, hackathons are a mix between career fairs and coding competitions where student teams "hack" together a project to solve some task over the course of a weekend. In other words, a hackathon is defined simply by excitement, learning, innovation, and especially, a lack of sleep.

As a computer science major, I started going to hackathons as a freshman to apply what I've been learning into practice.

Although it's partly a competition, it's as intense as you make it. At my first hackathon, I didn't even end up submitting a project. There was always something to do that I just lost track of time. First, there was the mad dash for insomnia cookies, the treat of choice for late nights. Then, there was a workshop on React, a computer language I've always wanted to learn. Right after, my friend challenged me to a match of laser tag, and I'm not one to refuse a challenge.

Insomnia Cookies Anyone?

Just like that, the night quickly came and passed. Before I knew it, the outside was painted a rosy pink and sunlight started streaming in through the windows. An announcement said we were expected to demo our (yet unstarted) projects the next morning. Oops... Luckily for me, that meant, I had more time to explore the other projects. And over the years, seeing these projects have blown my mind.

I've seen a portable physical Braille reader, a water tester built for Flint, Michigan, and a chrome extension to filter out "fake news" on Facebook. It's hard to imagine that these ideas can be made real in only 36 hours.

A mirror hack from treehacks

Although not all problems can be solved in a day, preparing for hackathons has made me think about some of the current issues the world is facing today. Being at Yale has taught me to dig deeper than buzzword issues like "fake news" or the refugee crisis. What are the causes of these crises and what gave rise to them? Taking it one step further, how could I personally address them?

At Yale, I've learned that it is my job to learn from both fellow Yalies and people of the greater world community. In the process of identifying potential projects, I read about a single mother who's trapped in a cycle of eviction in urban Milwaukee and listened to my friend's tales about families facing the effects of climate change in Kiribati.

With that knowledge, at hackathons, I feel empowered to focus on these world issues and find effective ways to solve them even with limited resources and time.

I invite you to think harder, and focus deeper. Design and implement a way to solve it, and recruit some friends to help. Join me in this world of hackathons.