Using Hackathons as a Learning Tool

Nick Quinlan said when he was in school there weren’t any collegiate hackathons on the west coast, and there was only one on the east coast. Quinlan, who is now the commissioner at Major League Hacking (MLH), is helping to organize around 70 events this year, over double what they did last season.

As computer science programs become more popular, so too do hackathons. “A student anywhere in the US at this point can probably be within a three hour drive of a hackathon,” said Quinlan. “I’m really excited about that growth and that students everywhere in the US and North America have access to it.”

Hackathons are set up to resemble a sporting event, although Quinlan said they’re a lot less competitive. Winners do receive prizes and sometimes money, but a lot of students go to the events to learn.

“They’re not trying to create startups, they don’t come with the intention of ‘I want to build a company’ or ‘I want to build something that is going to get the grand prize and give me a thousand dollars,’” said Vikram Rajagopalan, the student organizer at MHacks. “They’re coming to learn something new, to test their skills. They’re coming to build something cool with a group of people that they’ve never met before.”

Quinlan said hackathons help students realize their potential and show them that they can build whatever they want. “I think that’s something that a lot of students struggle to see sometimes.” Even when Quinlan sees groups becoming frustrated halfway through the hackathon, he says they still come away learning something new. “It’s a really rare experience where I meet somebody who didn’t have a good time at the event.”

This month, two of the most popular Hackathons took place, MHacks in Ann Arbor and PennApps in Philadelphia. Students from all over the globe came to participate, share ideas, and build hacks. Rajagopalan said they had about 7,000 people apply to be a part of MHacks  and they accepted around 2,400.

This season the MHacks winners were Olivia Walch and Matt Jacobs with their Draw Anything app. According to the winner site the app is “an iOS app that harnesses the computational power of the Wolfram Programming Cloud to automatically create step-by-step drawing guides.”

Quinlan says the computer science education teaches students important fundamentals and the hackathons act as a supplement to this education. The hackathons show students they can be self-guided and gives students the opportunity to build something. “It’s time for them to take their skills that they’ve gotten in class and really apply them,” said Quinlan. “One of the things that I always recommend students to do is to go into the event with something they know they want to learn and just have at it. Honestly, that’s how I learned most of the things I know today about programming computers.”

Rajagopalan says at a hackathon students are going to learn how to quickly take an idea that they have and build a basic level product demonstrating the feasibility of their idea. “A hackathon is going to teach you how to use resources on the web, and really efficiently try to figure out what your questions are,” said Rajagopalan. “It’s really a way more practical application of a lot of computer science principles.”

The hackathons also help students who benefit from learning beyond classroom work. Rajagopalan says for some students, the computer science program does not support the way that they think or the way that they work on projects, so it empowers those who don’t fit rigidly inside the standard curriculum. Even the professors are starting to see the benefit of these hackathons. At Rutgers University in New Jersey, the students in the Computer Science program are required to go to the hackathon at the school.

These events are also a great way to show students what programming is really about, especially when learning theoretical computer science doesn’t always motivate. “I think if you threw a lot of people who wanted to learn how to code directly at a computer science course, they wouldn’t be really excited about it because they’re learning such theoretical stuff,” said Rajagopalan, “but at hackathon, let’s say you tell someone the first thing you’re going to do is build a personal webpage. By the time you’re done with that first lesson, they have something that’s very tangible from what they’ve learned.”

 Photo credit: Sebastian ter Burg

Michelle Harven

Michelle Harven

Michelle is a current graduate student at Emerson College and an intern at Boston's public radio station. She enjoys exploring the world of educational technology and writing about the ever-changing sector and its potential.