Jul 12 2019

Campus Hackathons Prepare Students for Tech and Coding Careers

Student input, corporate sponsors and nonprofit partnerships help colleges plan engaging STEM events

Higher education institutions are finding that hackathons — events inviting students to participate in science, technology, engineering and math challenges — are a great way to connect coding to real-world problems that students care about solving.

At Stetson University, hackathons have included daylong boot camps on activities such as penetration tests, application building and coding of smart assistants, Campus Technology reports

“Hackathons naturally encourage small communities to form in which students learn from each other and work together to build sophisticated projects in a single weekend,” Joshua Eckroth, an assistant professor of computer science at Stetson University, said in a statement, according to Campus Technology.

Hackathons will vary depending on an institution’s size, resources and culture, but a few fundamentals can help any college get these popular events up and running.

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how higher education hackathon planners address accessibility challenges.

Seek Student Input to Plan Successful Hackathons

From a resource perspective, hackathons require only a few basic essentials — a strong Wi-Fi connection and plenty of power outlets — but these are a must. 

One strategy, if a boost to existing infrastructure is required, is to bring on temporary Wi-Fi solutions, such as Aruba’s IAP–325 access points, for the event. 

Experts recommend that colleges start planning six weeks out and include students in decision-making for themes and other details.

“Students are tuned in to the needs of their peers and have the motivation to spend the time needed to plan an incredible event,” according to Major League Hacking, the official league for these events. “Student organizers also have the ability to learn a lot about fundraising, management, logistics and marketing through the process of planning a hackathon.”

MORE FROM EDTECH: Check out how colleges can engage students through active learning.

Partner with Third Parties to Expand Hackathon Resources

Partnering with tech companies is another route to hosting a hackathon. 

This helps institutions offset costs and share planning, while facilitating connections between students and prospective employers. Because hackathons spur interest in the technical skills many companies are looking for, both large and small organizations often support these kinds of events. 

After a successful hackathon at Oakland University in 2015, the student group GrizzHacks reached out to Microsoft to sponsor a continued effort to support students’ interest in coding. 

In 2018, GrizzHacks sponsored its third hackathon — its largest to date — and invited technology professionals to participate.

“Through the mentorship available over the whole weekend, attendees are able to work on ideas and projects they would otherwise never get a chance to tackle in classes,” Shriyash Jalukar, a co-director of GrizzHacks, wrote in a blog post. “By the end of the weekend, hackers come out feeling proud about what they built.”

In addition to contributing funding for the event, Microsoft also brought specific challenges, including a mobility hack and a financial management tool hack, which participants tackled to exercise their coding creativity.

At Northeastern University, a partnership with Google opened the door for students to learn about and explore Google Cloud’s data analytics tools as part of a March Madness-themed hackathon. 

Student developers and data scientists had the opportunity to meet Google engineers while creating simulations of NCAA matchups to predict the tournament’s outcome.

Nonprofit organizations also make great partners. At Carnegie Mellon University, officials are working with the Jefferson Education Exchange to plan a series of hackathons that take advantage of open-source software students can use to explore coding. 

Above all, remember that hackathons should focus on making coding fun for students of all backgrounds. With the right approach, even students with no experience in coding can be enticed by these STEM-oriented events.

This article is part of EdTech: Focus on Higher Education’s UniversITy blog series.


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