News, On Campus

Computer Science Society Plans First Hackathon

The Boston College Computer Science Society will host the first of what its members hope will become an annual hackathon this weekend. Set to run for 24 hours, starting Friday at 6 p.m., groups of students will have the whole time to put their heads together and work on bringing an idea to life.

By the end, the idea of Hack the Heights is that participants have some kind of device, program, or another product that they can demo—they create something out of nothing, said James LeDoux, MCAS ’17, who’s helping organize the event with the BC Computer Science Society (BCCSS). They expect between 50 and 100 students to participate, with the possibility of expanding it in the future to include students from other Boston-area schools.

The event comes after Sergio Alvarez, chair of the computer science department, sent an email to computer science students this week announcing that Lewis Tseng will join the department next year as a tenure-track faculty member. The number of undergraduate majors in computer science grew from 57 to 267 between 2007 and 2016, according to the BC Factbook, but the department has just nine full-time faculty.

PennApps, the country’s first college hackathon, held annually at the University of Pennsylvania, has had enormous success—in February, four Penn students sold the company they had created from an app they made at the 2014 event.

Projects range from apps to websites and robotics. One project that came out of PennApps 2015 was a program that allows users to operate a drone by playing the ukulele.

“You can try to do something useful, you can try to do something totally interesting—the whole idea is that you get people all in one space together and catalyze that thought in the back of your head: “Oh, I wonder if I could make that,’” said Cam Lunt, MCAS ’17.

Lunt said BCCSS is approaching this year’s event on a smaller scale to iron out the logistics and get a sense of how it works. He said people in the Office of Student Involvement did not understand the 24-hour, overnight aspect of the event, and one administrator expressed concern that a “hackathon” included some kind of illegal activity. BCCSS has partnered with several sponsors for the event, including General Electric, Optum, and Google.

Hack the Heights is more or less unrestrained in terms of the kinds of projects people can pursue, but there is one prize to incentivize some participants to do something for the social good. Larger events at other schools have corporate-sponsored prizes, where companies can ask participants to take a crack at a specific project that would eventually help the company.

LeDoux said BCCSS has been surprised by the breadth of interest expressed in the event so far: a lot of people interested are brand new to coding, and 40 percent of registered students are freshmen. About one-third of the sign-ups so far are people who have only taken one of the two intro computer science courses.

“The way you get expert at making things is by making a lot of things and going to these types of events a lot, and if we don’t have that kind of traction right now, we’re really trying to reach out to people who have limited experience,” Lunt said. “We’re going to try to have a lot of people available to help on projects.”

LeDoux said that in his first hackathon, he knew pretty much nothing, and wasn’t useful to his team.

“There’s so much that your education doesn’t teach you when it comes to CS, and I think hackathons are the best way to help people extract themselves from their academic knowledge to some practical and applicable,” he said.

April 20, 2017