Embracing the Hackathon in Higher Education

10/23/2017 08:38 pm ET Updated Oct 25, 2017

David Altounian and Sarah Sharif

As the world economy becomes more information-driven and technology enabled, there is a growing need for engineering and software developer talent. Coding academies, universities, and even high school programs are working hard to address the increasing skills gap by providing students with the tools and training needed to succeed in the workforce. Learning to work in a team environment, with counterparts from other disciplines, under specified (and frequently tight) schedules are critical skills for a new developer to learn. Some universities already embrace the concept of hackathons as an additional opportunity to prepare students for the ever-evolving work environment but more universities need to support hackathons to prepare both technologists and liberal arts students for the workforce through a rich professional experience.

A hackathon is a short-term event where individuals work in teams to create a working software prototype, application or product addressing a specific project or need. The event provides a learning experience for ideation, customer needs analysis, feature specification, and prototyping with a hard deadline. The ability to work with stakeholders as well as understand customer feedback is vital for people entering the development field.

Major organizations are sponsoring hackathons, including the U.S. Department of Defense, Daimler, and the American Red Cross. The DOD and New York University’s national security technology accelerator, called MD5, worked with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) and the Advanced Functional Fabrics of America to host a hackathon on “Advanced Functional Fabrics in Challenging Environments.” Daimler hosted a hackathon at the International Motor Show targeting artificial intelligence and automotive solutions. The Red Cross and Doctors Without Borders partnered together for an OpenHack event addressing refugee challenges. Hackathons provide valuable outcomes for sponsors in terms of ideas and for the participants in gained experience.

Top ranking computer science and engineering programs in the United States run their own hackathons, partnering with either corporations or nonprofits to bring together students and external experts to develop practical solutions.

HackGT is annual student-run event by a student organization on Georgia Tech’s campus, also, called HackGT. HackGT is a group of students whose mission is to promote CS education, whether it’s the marquee 1000+ person collegiate hackathon to Catalyst, a day of Computer Science Exposure for underserved and underprivileged High School Students in the Metro Atlanta Area. HackGT was made possible by not only NCR, but also 26 other sponsors -- a full list can be found at https://hack.gt. Cornell University hosts BigRed Hacks, run by students within Cornell’s computer science community. The Stanford Women in Computer Science group offers the HackOverflow event annually in the spring. Similar events have been held at universities including the University of Texas’ Cockrell School of Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Massachusets Institute of Technology, and Rice University.

Some universities encourage students to participate in corporate hackathons such as Carnegie Mellon’s participation in the PNC Bank Hackathon. These events provide opportunities for universities and corporations to align and form partnerships where funding and feedback can be integrated into new market driven curriculum. Over time these create opportunities for private/public partnerships or sponsorships of formal degree programs.

One advantage of university-supported hackathons is the opportunity for cross-university participation from both students and faculty. Don Unger, assistant professor of writing and rhetoric at St. Edward’s University, shares his perspective on hackathons: “One of the challenges I face as a new professor is finding community partners for assignments. Many project champions at ATX Hack for Change asked for the skills that I teach in my classes. Hackathons give students a real audience for the work that they are doing which inspires a new level of commitment.”

Some companies use hackathons for recruiting and recruiting firms recognize the value of hackathons to establish relationships with participants. Beverly Vandegrift, co-founder of Grindstone Recruiting, a technology industry recruiting company says, “Over the past several years, we’ve found hackathons to be a great place to identify smart, engaged, passionate young developers. Although many of the participants have been too early in their careers to be of benefit to our start-up and early-stage clients, we’ve found hackathons to be worth our while to establish relationships with these up-and-comers as some will make great candidates down the road.”

Beyond the value of teaching skills, civic hackathons support local government, nonprofits, and other community groups. Students are exposed to community issues and local voices. These real-time dialogues promote an inclusive, human-centered approach to end-user research and design. Nonprofits have frequently attended ATX Hack for Change and have shared how the university-hosted event bridged gaps between the non-technical and technical communities in Austin. Hackathons encourage future generations to mindfully give back and donate their skills to social good projects while instilling the importance of collaboration.

Lisa Barden, program director of nonprofit Keep Austin Fed, talks about the value of the hackathon from the perspective of a recipient of hackathon activities, "Since 2013, we’ve worked with ATX Hack for Change and now have a new website and have laid the groundwork for a volunteer management platform that we use today. We were able to turn large, meaningless datasets into visual representations and show the public the impact of diverting food from waste streams to our neighbors in need.”

The hackathon approach to solving corporate challenges has become a standard. McKinsey and Company has released a report on hackathons which provides recommendations for processes and approaches for corporate hackathons. Many of the major software technology platform vendors such as IBM, Oracle, SAP, and Cisco offer hackathons, hackathon kits and/or developer resources.

Hackathons are proving to be powerful opportunities for corporations, civic organizations, software development platform developers, talent recruiters and technology groups. In today’s intensely competitive environment these forward-looking groups are increasingly turning to hackathons. In turn, more higher education programs need to adopt hackathons to provide students with opportunities outside of the traditional education classroom so that they are well prepared to solve problems and succeed in the business environment of the future.

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