Hackathon draws students, inspires coding ingenuity

Sarah Yaacoub

A sophisticated computer program often takes weeks, months or even years to create, build and perfect, but last weekend, student hackers from around the nation were challenged to design and implement one in a day.

More than 40 students participated in Hack the Hill, a 24-hour hackathon event heldin WKU’s Snell Hall and open to undergraduate and graduate students from anywhere in the world, in addition to a few admitted high school students. Started in 2016, the hackathon is now an annual occurrence with corporate sponsors in addition to financial backing from WKU and support from professors and faculty in the Ogden College of Science and Engineering and the School of Engineering and Applied Sciences, or SEAS.

The idea first started last year, when robotics major and Gatton Academy graduate Aaron Brzowski approached a group of students studying in computer science with the idea of starting a hackathon at WKU after participating in a number of them at other universities.

“He really enjoyed it and thought it’d be a good opportunity, so it happened last year. We had about 30 or so [participants],” Chandler Staggs said. Staggs is a computer science major and senior and said he acted as one of the organizers for Hack the Hill.

Since then, the program has grown, with the majority of its participants coming to WKU from colleges outside of Bowling Green.

Even as it grows, though, Hack the Hill retains its small, community-oriented atmosphere.

“That’s what makes us unique,” Trevor Brown, Hack the Hill organizer and Russellville native, said. “People really seem to enjoy the relaxed nature of the event.”

He also described Hack the Hill as friendly and more homier than similar events. The hackathon begins with a planning period and then a pitch, in which each team presents its idea to the rest of the participants. This concept was new to many of the hackers, including first-place winner Brandon Marcum, a senior in the computer and information technology who built a game that taught players Japanese characters through a fun and interactive process.

“This was my first hackathon,” Marcum said. “I wasn’t expected the pitches … it was very impromptu, but impromptu, fun and embarrassing is better than normal and boring.”

Taking risks seems to be part of the hackathon’s purpose. As Hack the Hill organizer and senior Lucas Cook put it, the only enemy to the participants is the time constraint, and the range of ideas and projects is wide. Some hackers choose to create games, while others, like co-winner William Lifferth, design websites and apps used to improve people’s lives. Lifferth’s project was an app called Toolbox which would allow users to virtually interact with mental health professionals with relative anonymity at their convenience, providing features like a daily journal and a mood tracker. Lifferth is a junior from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville who is double-majoring in computer science and machine learning.

“A friend suggested I see a therapist, and it was a great experience,” Lifferth said of his idea’s origin. “I think everyone should have the ability to talk through things, but realistically, not everyone can or wants to set up an in-person appointment.”

Brown said he considered this year’s hackathon a success, and he hopes to see it expand even more in coming years. Some of the future goals of Hack the Hill include more faculty involvement, especially from WKU’s Computer Science Department, in the planning process. Brown said there’s also talk of gearing the event toward high school students as well.

Reporter Sarah Yaacoub can be reached at 270-745-6291 and [email protected] Follow her on Twitter at @sarahyaacoub1.