When I was a freshman, my mentor, an upperclassman came to me and asked if I was busy on a particular weekend. He told me that, if I wanted, I could try to win some prizes, and maybe even some money, while working on a project that I could brag about to recruiters. There wasn't a catch or anything--- there was just no guarantee that I would win anything. So, at the very least, I'd have a project that I could brag about to recruiters. That didn't sound too bad to be. I'm not much of a brag, but I knew how rare it was for a freshman to have something to show for themselves outside of coursework and class assignments. So, I was in. That's how I signed up for my first Hack-a-thon.

It was an event held at the school, in the alumni events center, so we couldn't stay in the event space over night. However, aside from that, the event unfolded just like any other Hack-a-thon. On Saturday, we all gathered to hear the prompts, the timer started, and from there, we had around 24 hours to come up with an idea, a demo, and present it to the judges. Then, after a round of presentations from the finalists to everyone that participated, the winners were announced and could claim their prizes. Throughout the event, there were also smaller challenges and giveaways to earn additional prizes, and all the sponsors were there to advertise their companies and recruit students for internships.

I established my team, and, although I don't remember our official team name after so long, I do remember that we privately called ourselves Chris*3, because all three of us are named Chris. Well, my name isn't actually Chris, but my dad's name is Chris, and my middle name is his namesake, so it sort of counts. Anyways, we were working on a prompt that was pretty broad: we could make anything as long as it improved the lives of students on campus. So, we created a platform that would allow students to have an easier time connecting with their professors and each other. Our web-app allowed for students to share resources and professor reviews for each course they signed up for. By the end of those 24 hours, the project wasn't done by any sense of the word, but we have enough visuals to conceptualize our idea, we could explain how it worked and how we could eventually make it a reality, and we could answer all the questions that the judges and other participants threw our way. Our project was the winner in our prompt category. I walked away with some money, a bunch of swag from the sponsors, and a Bluetooth speaker that I still use today.

I didn't realize that participating in Hack-a-thons, and winning, would end up being so addictive. Later that same year, there was another local Hack-a-thon, this time organized by Lincoln Financial. My team created an app that would identify food banks and grocery options, and guide you to those locations by gps. It was made to be as accessible as possible. We utilized augmented reality so that it would more effectively guide people on foot, and we explored and planned out an alternative version of the tool for those that don't have smartphones, so that it would be available through calling or texting instead. This was all to minimize the negative effects of food deserts. With that project, I won again, this time earning $1,000.

In my following years as a student, I continued participating in Hack-a-thons. I didn't win every single time--- my winning streak had to break at some point--- but I think I learned something new at each competition, whether that be techniques and tools from my competitors or teammate, or something about myself, how I work and think things through, and how to manage projects, with a lot of moving parts, from the ground up while under pressure and time constraints. Each experience at all of those competitions was valuable to me. And, I continue to recommend participating in Hack-a-thons to students as well as to peers that happen to have a lot of free time. Anything that drives and motivates you to create something new, while potentially engineering solutions that help improve the lives of others, can't be a bad thing.

Related Posts