Students innovate, network in Shabbat-friendly hackathon

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By James Whitlow
Staff writer
@woltihW

James Whitlow/Mitzpeh.

James Whitlow/Mitzpeh.

Jewish and non-Jewish students poured into the Hillel Center Feb. 18 for the JHacks Hackathon, a full day of coding and designing apps, web applications and hardware.

The clamor of conversation and wiggling joysticks were quickly replaced by the clack of computer keyboards, which hardly stopped for nearly 21 hours.

After close to a full day of typing, planning and occasionally sleeping, a six-person group of students from this university came out on top. The group designed an app that notifies home-fitness enthusiasts when they are exercising incorrectly or in a way that could hurt them.

Student hackers were tasked with designing hardware or software for use in the medical and security fields.

Hackathons usually conflict with Shabbat and run for multiple days at a time, JHacks President Jeremy Felder said. JHacks organizes a hack every year catering to Jewish students who observe Shabbat. Felder said the event was for everyone, and attracted a diverse crowd of Jews and non-Jews from as far away as Seattle and Florida.

“Last year it was a Jewish hackathon, and this year it is a hackathon that has Jews at it,” said Felder, a senior computer engineering major. “It’s more balanced.”

Video games provide a mental break for hackers. Laura Spitalniak/Mitzpeh.

Video games provide a mental break for hackers. Laura Spitalniak/Mitzpeh.

Jacob Elspas, a sophomore computer science major, said the hackathon is a great time for students – Jewish or otherwise – to hone their skills and have a good time.

“Being a religious Jew, it is kind of hard to go to hackathons,” he said. “It such a unique event … you get to hang out with your friends; you get to do what you love.”

Participants from more than 20 schools – including Cornell, Carnegie Mellon and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology – competed for prizes. First place winners received a touch screen and small computer combo, second place received computer monitors and third took home miniature Bose stereos. Sponsors also gave out prizes, ranging from Amazon gift cards combo to a mysterious “swag bag,” but these were not the only rewards worth competing for.

The hackathon also served as a networking and recruitment opportunity. Representatives from Dell, Windows, T. Rowe Price and a number of other tech firms set up booths to court graduating seniors and hand out company-branded favors. Some participants left before the judging and allotment of prizes – only staying for the recruitment opportunity.

Placing in the competition is a way to get on major tech companies’ maps, said Jade Yee, operations specialist at Major League Hacking, a computer science organization that sponsored the hackathon.

“When there are winners, [sponsors] will reach out to them,” she said.

Coders focus on their programs Saturday, Feb. 18 at the JHacks Hackathon.

Coders focus on their programs Saturday, Feb. 18 at the JHacks Hackathon.

Some students have been known to bring premade work to hackathons, which is forbidden, to impress judges in the hopes of gaining employment. However, cheating was not an issue this year.   

While companies definitely scout the event, Felder said, it is equal parts recreational and professional; what participants gain from the event is up to them.

“From the participants’ point of view, it depends what they want to gain out of [the hackathon],” Felder said. “They can be speaking with the sponsors all night long and all day tomorrow … but at the same time, there are a bunch of prizes on the line for getting a nice project done.”

But for Marc Leeb, a member of the first place group, the event was truer to the JHacks motto emblazoned on the wall of the main room: “Build something you are proud of.”

“I’m very proud of what we did,” the senior supply chain management and information systems major said. “I think if we refine our prototype a little bit, it can actually be something that can make a difference.”

 

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