Students Immerse Themselves in Coding & Problem Solving at Area ‘Hackathons’

Philly Code FestApril 28, 2016, Blue Bell, Pa.—Montgomery County Community College (MCCC) Computer Science students are building a groundswell of support for honing, as well as showcasing, their coding skills through participation in regional hackathons.

Computer Science Professor Dr. Kendall Martin said it started two years ago when an MCCC student took part in PennApps, a student-run college hackathon at the University of Pennsylvania. The following year, two MCCC students participated. This spring, five students have taken part in three different hackathons – PennApps, Philly Codefest and FemmeHacks, a University of Pennsylvania hackathon for women.

“At Philly Codefest, our students saw a number of civic-minded hacks developed,” Martin said. “At FemmeHacks, the top programming students from Swarthmore, Penn and Princeton were all working together to develop and exchange skills. To be part of that energizes students and focuses them on new career goals.”

Even after the two- or three-day events are over, students continue to build upon what they learned, she said.

“We had students come back and give talks to other students on specific Computer Science tools they had learned,” Martin said. “We’ve had students come back and start up clubs to work together to be more prepared for hackathons.”

One team, at its first-ever coding event, had its app place in the final round of judging.

Luis Torres, one of the three students who participated at Philly Codefest, said his team created an Android application to reinforce cell phone notifications.

“On your phone you might swipe it away and forget,” he said. “Our app gives you a notification at a specified time. All of the judges liked it, and it’s a useful app.”

The application is not yet in the Android app market, although Torres said that is the goal.

“We were thinking about problems we have with technology, and we thought that was a pretty big one,” Torres said, referring to the need for more notifications. “We would like to make it a thing that other people can download.”

Torres, who would love to work in game development, said he learned a great deal from Philly Codefest and “that was what I loved about it most.”

“While it was sort of a new experience, I would say what was similar about it was in class whenever we tried to come up with a way to write a program, it was really just about solving a problem we had,” Torres said. “That was what we pretty much did at the hackathon.”

MCCC student Anthony Zayas, who helped in the development process of the Android app, said that although his Philly Codefest team did not win any prizes, “the experience alone was worth wonders.”

“My team made it to the final 10,” Zayas said.

For student Sufi Binnoor, who participated in three hackathons via PennApps, building a network and staying up-to-date in the computer science field were the biggest takeaways.

“I have learned to work with teams,” Binnoor said. “I have also learned that working under pressure doesn’t have to be boring.”

In addition to working under time constraints to solve problems, students meet and network with more than 1,000 computer science students from the U.S., Switzerland, Hong Kong and Australia. Vendor representatives from prestigious firms, including Comcast, Johnson & Johnson and Venmo attend, on the lookout for new talent.

“There are workshops run during the weekend that have other students instructing on skills and techniques,” said Martin. “The University provides any hardware that a team requests so there is exposure to mobile devices, virtual reality headsets, drones and medical equipment, like programmable diabetes pumps.”

Martin said more students would be involved in hackathons if participation did not require all day and all night commitment over a two- or three-day span, which presents challenges, particularly for community college students.

“Very few of our students have blocks of time like that free, independent of job responsibilities and family responsibilities,” she said. “We have another large group who would be involved right now but cannot get that much time off of work, or can’t afford that much time off of work.”

However, all MCCC Computer Science students are benefiting from the experiences of Torres, Zayas, Binnoor and others because of the energy and excitement they bring back to campus after the hackathon events.

Montgomery County Community College’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) division offers several technology-related degree and certificate programs. They include Cloud Computing, Computer Science, Computer Networking, Cyber Security, Information Technology and Interactive Media. To learn more, visit mc3.edu/academics and select Area of Study, followed by STEM.

- Theresa Katalinas

Philly Code Fest

Montgomery County Community College student Anthony Zayas talks to the judges at Philly Code Fest. Photo courtesy of Drexel University College of Computing and Informatics.

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