JHacks teaches computer science skills through education-themed competition

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By Mohan Xu
@XuMohan1
For Mitzpeh

JHacks, a 24-hour hackathon, was held in the Brendan Iribe Center for Computer Science and Engineering for the first time on February 15 and 16.

Ayelet Senderowicz, a junior chemical engineering major and president of JHacks, said that 191 people registered this year and 104 people checked in. “Historically, I think this is the first time that we’ve had over 100 checks in and each year it grows a little bit,” she said.

Students from all different backgrounds participated in the event, which focused this year on education.

Senderowicz said the core goal of any hackathon is education, as hackathons are “basically a dedicated chunk of time where people come in and they work on a computer science-based project.” 

However, when participants were surveyed last year, they said the ability to work on any project of their choice made the objective too open. So this year Senderowicz and her board picked the theme of education to give participants more directions in terms of what their projects could be, rather than just using the general theme “hacking a better world.”

JHacks decided that education would be a good theme because participants are university students, according to Senderowicz. “Education is important to us and a huge, overarching factor of our life,” she said. Senderowicz said the theme was big enough to give people a lot of flexibility in choosing a project but also narrow it down for people who had no ideas.

She said JHacks is different from other hackathons because of its schedule.

Senderowicz said hackathons will typically begin on Friday night and go all through Saturday during the Sabbath period, which excludes Jews who keep Sabbath from participating. Therefore, JHacks is held from Saturday night to Sunday afternoon so that observant Jewish people can participate and have a hackathon experience.

This year, JHacks attracted students from different universities, including this university, UMBC and Montgomery College. JHacks got a lot of people who observe the Sabbath because “we are Sabbath friendly,” Senderowicz said.

During the hackathon, students crowded around tables with their own materials such as laptops and notebooks.

“I am excited and want to learn something new and to be able to give my teammates knowledge that I have,” said Simran Sethi, a sophomore computer science major from Northern Virginia Community College. “It does not matter whether we lose or win, because we are all winners for learning something new from each other and making friends.”

This was the fourth time Sethi has participated in a hackathon, but it was her first time at JHacks. She was in a six-person team. Sethi said her teammates had different levels of coding skills, and her role in the team was to guide them. 

Her team’s project was about setting up a schedule for classes. Sethi said this project was a guideline on how many classes students can take and also related to their majors so that students will not be overwhelmed by class schedules.

“This is the better version to help them time planning and customize what you want,” Sethi said. “This also will lead students in the right direction.”

Caleb Wheeler, a freshman computer science major from this university, also participated in JHacks. This hackathon was his second time participating in such an event. Wheeler explained that his first hackathon did not really count because it was only four hours long.   

“Participating in JHacks was a good chance for me having the ability to collaborate with people that are already also coming,” Wheeler said. At the same time, he also wanted to get more coding experience.

Wheeler’s team project was similar to Sethi’s team. Wheeler said his team made a personal scheduling tool. It allowed the user to input various assignments based on the priority of urgency, such as when they are due.

During the hackathon, Wheeler’s team met some difficulties and problems. He said the main issue for his group was that “none of us have any extensive experiences or experiences with JavaScript or web development of any sort.”

Both Wheeler and Sethi said they learned a lot about programming from this hackathon.

Wheeler said he learned how to pull from various templates in JavaScript files to run the backend. “It was fun for me,” he said.

Sethi added that the hands-on experience taught her things the textbook cannot teach her.

Two people judged the teams’ projects through their presentations. One was Gil Yehuda, Verizon’s senior director of technology strategy, and the other was this university’s computer science professor Roger D. Eastman.

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