Problem-Solving at LC Hackathon

Jordan Korn '22, Staff Writer

Julia Hoffman ’20 and Alexa Becker ’22 furiously typed away at their keyboards. Anxiety pulsed through them during the entire competition, and when they walked through the doorway to pitch their final project to a panel of judges, their presentation was not yet completed.

On Friday, February 8, and Sunday, February 10, teams of Loomis Chaffee students competed against each other in a competition to “hack” the problems with which they were presented. The Loomis Chaffee Robotics team and the PHI hosted a hackathon, which aimed at solving the mental health issues that students face in day-to-day life on campus. Part of the appeal of Hackathons is the short time frame–mere hours–in which projects go from an emerging idea to a tangible finished product.

Hackathons, usually associated with tech start-ups, are coding marathons where groups of people work together to complete a project over a very brief amount of time. The term “hackathon” is a portmanteau of the words “hack” and “marathon.”

Contrary to the implications of the word, “There is no hacking, in the computer sense, involved. Essentially you are presented with a problem and you are given a limited amount of time to find a solution,” said Hoffman.

Shlok Sharma ’19, Log Web Director and an organizer of the event, explained that the competition was inspired by various companies’ similar events. In recent years, more and more large corporations have been holding hackathons as a way to pursue innovation.

“Hackathons are a chance for engineers and anyone else in the company to transform the spark of an idea into a working prototype and get other people excited about its potential,” wrote Pedram Keyani, the former Facebook director of engineering in a 2012 blog post.

Facebook has run company-wide hackathons in which the new products created become implemented platform-wide within weeks since 2007. One such product was the ability to tag in comments–it was developed at a hackathon and was implemented two weeks later.

The hackathon held in the PHI differs from its Silicon Valley counterparts; it is “less product-based because we want to make it as open to people as possible. There is no coding or engineering required,” said Shlok.

Teams at the hackathon were given the choice between three mental health-related issues for which they had to come up with a solution. The three matters the competitors chose between were poor time management skills of students, the damaging overuse of social media, and the accessibility of mental health care resources on campus.

The teams all went through the prototyping and design process at accelerated rates to be able to finish on time. They raced to the finish line—the pitch to the judges. Students have to come up with the initial idea which can serve as a roadblock and then take that vision all the way to a pitch, all while under time-pressure and in a chaotic environment. Hoffman described a lengthy brainstorming process which involved sifting through various flawed ideas before finally landing on the one her team would present.

Often compared to working at a startup, hackathons push students to their limits. They must work together to solve problems using creative, out-of-the-box thinking. The time constraint fosters a competitive culture among the teams. The event, by design, brings those with creativity and the ability to work under pressure to achieve great things for the community.

The winners of the hackathon were Armaan Pannu ’20 and Xavier Figueroa ’21. The problem that they took on was finding a way to decrease the excessive amount of time students spend on their screens. Their winning idea was to create dorm competitions in which each dorm would compare the amount they spent on their devices, and the winning dorm would get a prize. The idea is inspired by the Screen Time app which tracks how much time an individual spends on their screen and what they are doing. Their pitch included a running leaderboard to encourage competition. The future for this project remains uncertain.

“If we find a solution that is really profound, we might be able to take it to the next level. But it’s our first one [Hackathon], so I’m not sure,” explained Shlok.

Hackathons continue to gain popularity and to create impact at tech headquarters, on university campuses, and now potentially at Loomis Chaffee, too. Hackathons create a space where like-minded students can become immersed in a project they are passionate about. For a small amount of time, they can invest all their effort into one task that has the power to positively affect the community around us. Hackathons produce complexities and impactful technology; the essence of a hackathon which Loomis tries to instill in this event remains to come up with an idea, do something with it, and make others see why it matters.